Monday, February 25, 2013

Characters with Unlikeable Characteristics

While main protagonists in well-received novels have their share of fans, they also have their share of anti-fans, as I call them. On online venues, these anti-fans often justify their dislike for a character with reasons such as these: 

1. The character is whiny or breaks down too much.
2. The character is cold and unfeeling.
3. The character doesn't make the right decisions.
4. The character is passive about decision making.
5. The character doesn't seem to know what s/he wants.
6. The character is selfish.
7. The character isn't bright.
8. The character is too judgmental.
9. The character is boring.
10. The story is too character-driven.

Notice how these common character complaints are subtle foils of each other? 

Just because a character has an unlikeable characteristic, it shouldn't immediately make them an unlikeable character. I can root for a reasonably flawed character. Also taken into consideration is that I'm reading about the character within the context of the plot and setting they were developed for, and that s/he and I aren't trapped on an elevator together.

I'd often dismiss a review when a reader says they stopped reading the book after the first chapter(s) because they didn't like the character for a reason listed above, or something along those lines. Many main protagonists in books develop through the course of a story. Therefore, who a character is in the beginning of the story isn't necessarily who they are at the end of the story. (Although in some kinds of stories, certain characters don't undergo much change- for example, a sleuth in a mystery series is likely to maintain a consistent character- but for the purpose of this post, I'm going to focus on character arcs.)

I read THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett years ago. At the beginning of the story, I saw that Mary was cranky and Colin was self-pitying. I kept reading and was rewarded with seeing the two children transform. By the end of the story, Mary and Colin were not the same people they were at the beginning of the story.

Sometimes characters need flaws, especially at the beginning of the story, in order for them to demonstrate growth as the story progresses.

In my current WIP, the MC has what could be perceived as character flaws. For instance, she has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I imagine people who read the initial chapters of the book might dislike her for that very quality. But if this novel gets published (and it's a big IF), I hope people will read on and give my character a chance, and see how she evolves.

How often do you stop reading a book when you come across a main character with flaws?

Have you ever really liked a book even if you didn't enjoy the main character?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Author Interview with Claire Legrand

For this month’s author interview, I bring to you Claire Legrand, author of the MG novel THE CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS (Simon & Schuster). The book, a dark and delicious fantasy, is about a girl named Victoria who unravels the secrets of the neighborhood school where an evil headmistress holds children, including Victoria’s best friend Lawrence, against their will.  Reacting to the monstrously abusive approaches to “mold” the children at this institution, Victoria seeks out to take down the evil headmistress.

Claire was born in Texas, near Dallas. She has lived there until recently, when she moved to New York City, and then to New Jersey. This former librarian now writes full-time. How cool is that!

Any fun childhood memories you’d like to share?
One of my favorite childhood memories is actually hinted at in the dedication of THE CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS: “For my sixth-grade lunch table, who loved my scary stories.” When I was in sixth grade, I actually did tell scary stories to my lunch table, which consisted of several girls who are still dear friends of mine. For the most part, said scary stories revolved around Chucky, the possessed doll from the Child’s Play movies. To this day, I have still not watched any of those movies, but in sixth grade, I saw the cover of the first Child’s Play movie in Blockbuster (yes, Blockbuster! Ahhh the good ol’ days), and I was immediately haunted by the movie’s premise. I had nightmares about Chucky sneaking into my room at night! So obviously the best way to deal with these fears was to tell stories about me and my friends conquering Chucky in various horrific adventures. It certainly made lunchtime entertaining (and a bit gruesome)!

Have you ever come across a mean and nasty principal or teacher like Mrs. Cavendish?
Fortunately, I have never had to deal with a teacher or principal as horrid – or even a tenth as horrid! – as Mrs. Cavendish. I’ve been lucky enough to have a bunch of great, caring teachers over the years. I have, however, had teachers who intimidated me to the point of dreading to go to class; usually these teachers taught subjects that were especially challenging for me, like physics, math, and economics. Whenever this would happen, I would basically just grin and bear it and work twice as hard to get that A. I was like Victoria in that way: I was obsessed with my grades, almost to a fault. Your grades do not determine your self-worth, Past Claire! Don’t make yourself sick over them! It took me a long time to learn that.

I love how your story hints at the value of individuality without being preachy. What inspired you to write about this topic?
Well, first of all, I think there’s a lot of pressure on kids these days – on everyone, really, although kids, I think, are more susceptible to such pressures – to act, look, and feel a certain way. They’re constantly inundated via TV, the Internet, and advertisements with all these instructions about how to live their lives, what others look like compared to what they look like, the right emotions to have, the right emotions to stifle, the things they should want to buy and the things they shouldn’t, etc. Even when I was in middle school, before the Internet was so prominent in everyone’s lives, I felt this constant pressure to look prettier, dress better, and act cooler than I really was – I even forced myself to listen to the local Top 40 station so I would be listening to the “right kind” of music! (Even at that age, I preferred listening to movie scores and oldies.) So I hope that kids reading CAVENDISH see that there’s danger inherent in trying to be something you’re not, that the individual quirks society at large may tell you to stifle can actually end up saving you, and that people who pressure you to change who you are at your core are wrong, wrong, WRONG.

I thought the strong-willed and stubborn Victoria was a good match for the cold-blooded Mrs. Cavendish. What character development techniques did you consider when you reflected on how you were going to pit the heroine and the villain against each other?
When I started writing CAVENDISH, I knew only this about Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish: That Victoria was a snotty, judgmental perfectionist, and that Mrs. Cavendish was trying to make Belleville into a picture-perfect, flawless town—at the behest of many of Belleville’s own citizens. These two simple facts led to the obvious question: Was Victoria really so very different from Mrs. Cavendish? Victoria wanted to “fix” Lawrence, correct his faults and make him a “better” person; likewise, Mrs. Cavendish wanted to torture Belleville’s children into more “perfect” versions of themselves. The parallels between them were already there, from the beginning. I knew that Victoria would have to go through incredible psychological hardships during the course of the book in order to realize 1) that she and Mrs. Cavendish were in fact quite alike, 2) that she didn’t want to be like Mrs. Cavendish, and 3) what she could do to stop that from happening. I basically built the book around the parallels between Victoria and Mrs. Cavendish, and the eventual divergence that Victoria, as the heroine, would initiate.

There were lots of roaches in your story; they were even painted onto the pages of the book. Why did you pick roaches?
Basically because I. HATE. ROACHES. They are disgusting, and they truly, truly freak me out. Like, if I see a roach, I will panic and break out into cold sweats. I might even start crying. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about them that frightens me on a primal level. I really might be slightly phobic. When I realized Mrs. Cavendish needed some scary, magical “tendrils” with which to sift through Belleville—her eyes and ears, her doers of dark deeds—I thought roaches were a perfect fit for the job primarily because they freak me out so much. I knew that I could infuse my own terror of them into the story, and make it that much more frightening for the readers. I think we writers enjoy writing about things that truly scare us; it allows us a safe venue in which to explore said scary things without actually having to face them!

You mention on your blog that you like film scores. (I love film scores too!) What are your favorite scores to listen to while you write?
Oh, gosh. I have so many! I will try to keep this brief. While writing CAVENDISH, I listened to a lot of Danny Elfman—Edward Scissorhands, The Corpse Bride—as well as The Brothers Grimm by Dario Marianelli, Finding Neverland by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, and Signs by James Newton Howard. While writing my next book, THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, I listened to scores with a more contemporary—but still whimsical—feel: Where the Wild Things Are by Carter Burwell and Karen O., Phoebe in Wonderland by Christophe Beck, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion. For my more epic YA work, I like Inception, The Da Vinci Code, and Angels & Demons by Hans Zimmer, the Battlestar Galactica scores by Richard Gibbs and Bear McCreary, and the Underworld scores by Paul Haslinger and Marco Beltrami.

I could go on and on! I’m always up for talking film scores, so any film score fans reading this, hit me up on Twitter @clairelegrand to chat!

Which authors/books did you like to read while growing up?
I loved Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, 
R. L. Stine, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Bruce Coville. I also loved THE PAINTED DEVIL and A DARKER MAGIC by Michael Bedard. Those last two are more obscure, but they are fantastically creepy. And one of my absolute favorite books in fifth grade (I read and re-read it obsessively) was THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster. My fifth grade class actually CREATED the world of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH in our classroom, with props and decorations and everything, and led our parents through it in costume, telling them the story of the book.

In high school, I didn’t read for pleasure very much. I worked really hard on my grades and was deeply involved in band—I was drum major, section leader, All-State musician, the whole shebang—but I did discover THE LAST UNICORN, by Peter S. Beagle, which is now one of my all-time favorite books.

In college, I discovered Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and Robin McKinley. I think if you put the writing of all the authors mentioned here in a blender, that’s what I’m shooting for with my own writing.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Oh yes! My next book, THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, comes out August 27 of this year! Like CAVENDISH, it’s a standalone middle grade novel, this time set at a haunted music hall. It’s the story of Olivia Stellatella, whose family is very poor and lives in the back rooms of her father’s music hall (he’s an orchestra conductor). When Olivia discovers that the hall is haunted, she befriends the ghosts and tries to help them solve the mysteries of their deaths so they can move on. In exchange, they try to help bring in a bigger audience for the financially strapped orchestra; the “ghosts of Emerson Hall” craze sweeps the city. But there are other ghosts in the hall, too—bad ones—and they’ll do anything to keep Olivia’s ghosts from moving on. THE YEAR OF SHADOWS has its creepy moments, for sure—it’s a ghost story, after all!—but it has a much more contemporary feel than CAVENDISH. I’m so excited to share it with the world; it’s a very personal story for me, and it was so fun to write because I got to draw upon my past as a musician!

My third book is WINTERSPELL, a young adult re-telling of The Nutcracker due out in Fall 2014. This is a dark fantasy, a sexy, twisted version of The Nutcracker that centers around 17-year-old Clara Stole and her quest to find her abducted father, taking the reader from 1899 New York City to Cane, a land ruled by vicious faeries. I’ve been obsessed with The Nutcracker since I was a little girl, and I had so much fun writing this darker, more elaborate version of the story. (Also, after writing two middle grade books, it was fun to stretch my young adult muscles a bit, and write the romance between Clara and the cursed prince Nicholas, Cane’s deposed ruler.)

I’ve also recently opened a site for dark middle grade short stories with fellow middle grade authors Stefan Bachmann (THE PECULIAR), Katherine Catmull (SUMMER AND BIRD), and Emma Trevayne (the upcoming CODA). It's called The Cabinet of Curiosities, and once a week, one of us—we call ourselves the Curators of the Cabinet—posts a dark, creepy, or otherwise strange middle grade short story, with themes for each month (the theme for January was cake; the theme for February is love). It’s a super fun project, and I encourage any fans of middle grade, the dark and creepy, and/or short stories to come check us out!

I have a couple of other projects in the works right now as well, one young adult and one middle grade, but unfortunately I can’t talk about them yet! I love writing MG and YA, and will probably always write mostly that—but I do have some ideas for adult projects in the future, too. 

Thank you for contacting me for this interview. 

You're welcome!