So we were chatting on a writing forum about “hooks”–the things you’re supposed to have that make the reader keep reading–and about hooks that were clearly over the top and existed just as an attention grab, and somebody tossed out “It was the day my grandmother exploded” as an example and then I was off and running and I haven’t got any idea what this is at all, so don’t get attached (and don’t tell me I said that about Digger!) because I think this is probably just weird flash fiction and not the start of a messed up urban fantasy.
It was the day my grandmother exploded. Also the day of her eighteenth wedding.
Mom always said she’d get into trouble, carrying on with men like she did, but Gran liked men and men liked Gran. Problem was that she was a staunch Catholic and did not hold with foolin’ around outside of marriage, so she dragged each one to the altar, sometimes a couple of times each. (She wasn’t so good about divorcing them, but our parish priest had a soft spot for Gran and generally fudged the paperwork.)
The husbands were generally pretty good-natured about it–Gran being well-endowed in the charm department–but the last fellow was a small-time hit-man from Pittsburgh and it turned out his business associates weren’t so good natured. I wouldn’t think you could wire a bomb to a wedding cake, but mysterious are the ways of The Lord. Or the mob, anyhow.
The explosion was so loud it shorted out Uncle Willy’s hearing aid and he kept saying “What? What? Is it the militias?” while bits of Gran, hit-man, wedding cake, and a discount wedding singer rained through the VFW dance hall. I turned to run, and that’s when I saw the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life.
She was short and well put together and had dark hair and a diamond stud in her ear. More importantly, she was not a relative.
My heart leapt. I won’t swear that wasn’t the adrenaline.
We took shelter under a table together.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Jack, short for Jacqueline, never Jackie. I believe I am passionately in love with you, although it could be that things are blowing up, and I’m not good at telling the difference.”
“What is going on?!” she yelled.
I looked over my shoulder. The table full of presents erupted in a sheet of flame.
“They’ve booby-trapped the presents,” I said.
(I should have known. The table had been nearly full, and nobody sends that many presents to an eighteenth wedding. The family had been pretty well tapped out by the time Gran hit double digits.)
Uncle Willy grabbed my shoulder and shouted something about ‘them’ coming through the windows, which wasn’t likely because there weren’t any windows. The VFW was the local shelter in case of tornados or nuclear war. It was built out of cinderblocks and civic paranoia.
The beautiful girl looked around wildly. “Who’s doing this?”
“The mob, I think,” I said.
“The militias!” said Uncle Willy.
“How do we get out of here?”
“I’m not sure…”
“They’ve come with their ammo and their canned goods!”
“There must be a way out!”
“Well, we got in here somehow…”
“Years of canned goods,” Willy clarified. “They have to have enough canned goods each to survive a thousand days of darkness when the Antichrist comes.”
“Oh, is he here too?” I asked vaguely. Another present blew up, embedding a full set of wedding silver two inches into the top of our table.
“They think he is,” said Willy darkly. “They carry specially blessed bullets to shoot him and bring about the Rapture.”
“I always wondered how that worked…”
“Can you shoot the Antichrist?” asked the beautiful girl, sounding a trifle hysterical. I hoped she hadn’t come in with the wedding singer. That would be awkward.
“Only in the forehead,” said Willy. “Between the sixes. That’s what they say, anyway.”
“How do you know so much about militias, Uncle Willy?”
“I dated a woman. But she wanted to bring the canned goods to bed with her, and I drew the line. I respect your survivalism, I said, but I do not believe the love between a man and a woman and a half-ton of French-cut green beans is a wholesome love. And I stood by that.” He nodded firmly.
“You gotta draw the line somewhere,” I said.
“This is not normal,” said the beautiful girl, putting her head in her hands.
“Well, no,” I said. “It’s my family.”
She looked up at me with narrowed eyes. She was wearing a little bit of purple eyeshadow and there was a smudge on her cheek.
“I’m the normal one,” I said, and then the long fuse on the presents finally hit the end. A waffle-iron rose from the table, soaring like a stamped metal bird, and struck the light fixture. I put my arms around the new love of my life and the sparks rained down around us.
Mom eventually overturned the table to discover me with my head in Amanda’s hair (her name was Amanda.) Uncle Willy was composing a letter to the editor on the back of an envelope. She sent them both out to wait for the police, along with the other two dozen guests, and we went to the grim task of scraping up Gran and shoving most of her into Mom’s enormous handbag.
It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to do on a first date, and I did get Amanda’s number, so it all worked out for the best.
“Is this Gran or wedding singer?” I asked, holding up a squishy bit on the end of a dustpan.
“Is it wiggling?”
It was not. I dropped it again.
Sirens blared outside the hall. Mom shoved her handbag into my arms and said “Go. I’ll deal with them.”
I went. The handbag was fake alligator and weighed a ton, even without a dead maternal relation in it.
The VFW had a back door, and fortunately there were neither mobsters nor militias around it. I could have probably dealt with the mobsters, but I have never been tested against blessed bullets or cans of French-cut green beans, and I wasn’t in the mood to find out.
It was a short walk around the block, across the high school’s lawn, and onto our street. The handbag thumped against my ribs and I elbowed it. “Settle down in there.” It settled.
The house was unlocked and it is possible that a burglar might have been able to walk in, although I won’t swear to his mental state if he tried to walk out again. I opened the folding doors to the laundry nook, dumped the clothes from the washer into the dryer, and then emptied the handbag into the washer. Chapstick, three paperback romances, a set of keys and a water bottle fell out.
I shook the handbag, and Gran slid out with a wet thwuck! and landed in the washer. I closed the lid, started the water, and set a bulk bucket of detergent on top of it, then went to get more weight.
Two cinderblocks and an unabridged dictionary later, the lid was locked down tight. It still rattled occasionally when something slapped the underside, but it didn’t come loose. I started the dryer so we’d have clean towels afterward.
I wanted to call Amanda, but there was a lot of eldritch howling coming from the washing machine, and anyway, calling thirty minutes after our first meeting might come off as needy. We’d sort of been making out under the table, admittedly, but that was probably-going-to-die petting, and I wasn’t sure if that counted.
I hoped she’d want to talk to me again. We’d have the best meet-cute story ever. On the other hand, Uncle Willy and the exploding wedding cake. Also, she might know the wedding singer.
I did feel bad about the wedding singer. The hit-man had obviously made some bad life choices, but the singer’s only bad choice had been coming to Gran’s wedding. We’d have to see if he had any next of kin.
I decided to text Amanda, under the pretext of finding out if she’d gotten home okay.
About an hour went by, and the howling stopped. So did the thumping. Then Mom came home, looking tired.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” she said. “A couple of eager deputies, but then Sheriff Eli showed up, and he soothed it all over.” (The family had an understanding with Sheriff Eli.)
“That’s good.” Amanda still hadn’t replied. Maybe her phone wasn’t charged. Maybe I was overthinking this.
“How is she?” asked Mom, pulling open the liquor cabinet.
“She hasn’t answered my text. I don’t want to send another one and look all desperate.”
“I mean your grandmother.”
“Oh. Done howling.”
Mom went over and knocked on the lid. There was a pause, then a knock in reply.
Mom did the first part of shave-and-a-haircut. The response came immediately.
“Good enough.” She stacked up the cinderblocks and the dictionary beside the washer and opened the lid.
“Did you have to use the washer?” asked Gran, standing up. “You know I hate that thing that sticks up in the middle. My back gets so cramped.”
“It’s easier to clean,” I said. “And there was a lot of your hit man in there with you.”
Gran sighed and dabbed her eyes. “Poor boy. He was just looking for a second chance.”
“He was sixty-seven. He told us he’d capped a guy last month.”
“He liked to keep his hand in.”
My phone buzzed. Home ok u?
It pained me that someone so beautiful could not type the word “you.” Still, love was patient, love was kind, love could overlook poor grammatical choices. Got home fine, I replied. Pretty wild day, huh?
“Put that thing down and help your grandmother,” ordered Mom.
I sighed. There are disadvantages to living at home after your first century. Everyone treats you like a kid. I helped Gran down from the washer.
“The dryer is a front-loader,” she said. “I can climb right out.”
“We have to pour all your water in by hand and scrub it down afterward, Gran. We can just set the washer to heavy load and it takes care of itself.”
“In my day, we had cauldrons for this sort of thing.”
“In your day, people lived in hide huts and prayed to the Mother of Serpents.”
“Nothing wrong with the Mother of Serpents, Jack. Could do with a bit more of it. Better neighbors than the Baptists, anyway. None of this parking-you-in on Wednesday nights. It was shameful what that nasty little Patrick man did to her, even if he was a saint.” (This was a sore spot with Gran, and had been for years. You can spot us on St. Patrick’s Day because no one in the family is wearing green.)
My pocket buzzed again. I handed Gran a bathrobe, made my excuses, and went to go see what sort of movies Amanda liked.
So MCA Hogarth and I were chatting about free time, and I said I believed in the ancient legends and then she drew us looking at a Free Time and then I drew another Free Time and then she drew a Deadline and then made the class Deadline Slayer and then since we were apparently making character classes anyway…
So we’re driving home from the Con Monday listening to podcasts, and one did a show on ghost stories. There were about five, as I recall, three of which were ridiculous, one of which was so-so, and one of which made me go “…huh. Okay, I could give you that one.”
(For the record, I don’t have much opinion on ghosts, which is maybe a little surprising, since I have so many opinions on so many other things. (I more or less want to pitch every ghost hunter show out the window while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, but it’s not the same thing.) I have strong opinions about gray aliens, conspiracies, and every form of cryptozoology but especially Bigfoot. But ghosts I am somewhat agnostic on, unless I am having a grim fit of skepticism when I attempt to disbelieve in the entire world.)
But it got me thinking about what constitutes a plausible ghost story. Not an “I totally believe in ghosts now!” story, but just…”I do not immediately roll my eyes and call you a lying liar that lies.” Obviously there’s some combination of factors that reads as “plausible” and some that immediately push it over into eye-rolling territory.
On a whim, I went over to one of the many send-us-your-real-ghost-story sites on the web, and this was very helpful, because it provided so many examples of implausible stories. You could run down the list muttering “Lying…deluded…hypnogogic hallucinations*…lying…dream…get the pipes checked…yeah, you inflicted that on yourself…hypnogogic hallucination…oh honey, you need a therapist in a big way.” (I am Judgy McJudgerson when it comes to ghost stories by anonymous posters. This is undoubtedly a character flaw.)
And I started working up a mental list of what I’d find plausible in a ghost story and what threw me out completely, and I’d be curious to hear yours. (If the answer is “Nothing, because ghosts aren’t real,” you are most likely right, but you won’t have much fun with this one.)
Frequently I found that what made something plausible was simply the narrator acting like a real person would act in those situations. Which may have some benefit for writing, somewhere down the road, or if I decide to make a living breaking into the lucrative world of telling ghost stories for no profit whatsoever.
An Incomplete List Which Probably Only Applies To Me:
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Any story that begins with “I’ve always been sensitive to spirits…” establishes you as a probably unreliable narrator who is going to assume ghosts before checking the pipes for air bubbles. (Sorry, them’s the breaks.) It is possible to come back from this one, but unlikely. If you then go to talk about guardian angels, we are done.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Ouija boards. The minute the Ouija boards make an appearance, I check out mentally.
PLAUSIBLE: Trying to fix the supposed ghostly phenomena. “The cupboards kept swinging open, so we got new latches. The doors kept coming open so we replaced the hinges.” Even if it doesn’t help, I appreciate that you tried like a sensible person.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Dripping blood. Yawn.
PLAUSIBLE: Banal hauntings. The really implausible ones are always big and dramatic. Something like “Bobby-pins kept showing up all over the house, which was weird because none of us used bobby-pins,” strikes me as a better detail.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: Unexplained phenomenon that I happen to know the explanation for. One ghost story I read had someone trying to blame a fairy ring on ghosts, and talking about seeing spiders of a species they didn’t know. Get a field-guide, people!
PLAUSIBLE: The ones that seem to be more “the world is stuck in a loop” than “something is purposeful here.” Like the Lutheran Ladies Bible Study met every Wednesday at eight for forty years in this room, so now that it’s been re-purposed for apartments, at 8 pm on Wednesday, the room suddenly smells like coffee. I’m surprisingly okay with that.
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: Murder victims. Honestly, the minute you discover that somebody was murdered in the house, I get twice as skeptical. It’s a little too pat and ties things up too neatly. Real life doesn’t make for cohesive plotlines.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I woke up and felt like something was in the room with me.” This is the classic sleep paralysis intruder phenomenon, and can be filed under “brains are weird.” Also, “I felt like something was sitting on my chest and I couldn’t breathe,” aka the Hag. Brains do this, no ghosts required, and seeing it attributed to ghosts irks me.
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “And then I found an old photo album, and there was a picture of the ghost!” This is very likely a deal-breaker, since I’ll assume you saw the photos first and filled in the rest mentally, and anyway, it’s a little too horror-movie perfect. I’d be much more likely to accept “I found a photo album and there were photos of people. No, I couldn’t pick out the ghost. Photography from that era was primitive at best and anyway “zippy blur at around ankle level” doesn’t photograph well.”
PLAUSIBLE: Lack of malice. I have a much easier time believing in ghosts that aren’t vengeful, just, y’know, there. This is not to say that a ghost can’t get angry over something the homeowners are doing, but broadly non-malicious, just doin’ their own thing–that works much better for me than “I AM GHOST-DAR, DESTROYER OF TENANTS.” (Will also accept “There are X number of ghosts in the house for some reason, but only one has an attitude problem.)
POSSIBLE DEAL-BREAKER: “I was scared, so I kept doing the exact same thing I was doing and didn’t take any precautions whatsoever.” Look, people do dumb things hoping that life will get better, but I am much more impressed when someone decides to sleep in a different room or put a brick in front of the door to keep it swinging closed.
DEFINITE DEAL-BREAKER: “I’m a professional ghost hunter…” ‘Nuff said.
*The intense hallucinations/waking dream experienced when falling asleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you’re waking up. I get those, incidentally, if I’m having a sleep paralysis episode, and they are as clear and vivid as real life, so I don’t blame people for thinking there’s weird stuff happening.
Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.
It used to be a problem.
There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold and gems fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.
So I got frogs. It happens.
“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”
I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.
Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.
Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.
I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening. I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.
Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.
Toads are masters of it.
I learned one day that the amphibians are going extinct all over the world, that some of them are vanishing. You go to ponds that should be full of frogs and find them silent. There are a hundred things responsible—fungus and pesticides and acid rain.
When I heard this, I cried “What!?” so loudly that an adult African bullfrog fell from my lips and I had to catch it. It weighed as much as a small cat. I took it to the pet store and spun them a lie in writing about my cousin going off to college and leaving the frog behind.
I brooded about frogs for weeks after that, and then eventually, I decided to do something about it.
I cannot fix the things that kill them. It would take an army of fairy godmothers, and mine retired long ago. Now she goes on long cruises and spreads her wings out across the deck chairs.
But I can make more.
I had to get a field guide at first. It was a long process. Say a word and catch it, check the field marks. Most words turn to bronze frogs if I am not paying attention.
Poison arrow frogs make my lips go numb. I can only do a few of those a day. I go through a lot of chapstick.
It is a holding action I am fighting, nothing more. I go to vernal pools and whisper sonnets that turn into wood frogs. I say the words squeak and squill and spring peepers skitter away into the trees. They begin singing almost the moment they emerge.
I read long legal documents to a growing audience of Fowler’s toads, who blink their goggling eyes up at me. (I wish I could do salamanders. I would read Clive Barker novels aloud and seed the streams with efts and hellbenders. I would fly to Mexico and read love poems in another language to restore the axolotl. Alas, it’s frogs and toads and nothing more. We make do.)
The woods behind my house are full of singing. The neighbors either learn to love it or move away.
My sister—the one who speaks gold and diamonds—funds my travels. She speaks less than I do, but for me and my amphibian friends, she will vomit rubies and sapphires. I am grateful.
I am practicing reading modernist revolutionary poetry aloud. My accent is atrocious. Still, a day will come when the Panamanian golden frog will tumble from my lips, and I will catch it and hold it, and whatever word I spoke, I’ll say again and again, until I stand at the center of a sea of yellow skins, and make from my curse at last a cloth of gold.
Terri Windling posted recently about the old fairy tale of frogs falling from a girl’s lips, and I started thinking about what I’d do if that happened to me, and…well…
(I have absolutely no idea where this little vignette came from or where it’s going, if anywhere…)
Stan Blackwell hunted angels.
It wasn’t a bad job, not in this economy. The logistics were hard to set up sometimes, but the market for angelhide was always enormous, and no one could send you to jail for harvesting creatures that the government didn’t think existed.
And it wasn’t like ivory or tiger skins, which Stan considered morally repugnant. Only a right bastard would kill an endangered species, so far as he was concerned. There were always more angels. Every time a human got born, another angel popped out of the aether to guard them.
Guardian angels were his bread and butter. His system, which he had perfected over the years, was to take a toddler to a high mountain road with no guardrails and set it loose. As soon as the kid got anywhere near the edge, the kid’s guardian angel would come flailing in, pushing it back from the edge with ethereal hands.
All Stan had to do was hit it with the harpoon gun, pull the kid back, dump the angel in the back of the truck and throw a tarp over it. The harpoon line was tied to the bumper of the truck, so pulling it up was usually easy, and angels were helpless against the devilwood bolts.
He always took the kid out for ice cream before returning them to the street or the daycare. Daycares made him uneasy. When he had run through all the guardian angels in any particular place, he generally called an anonymous tip in to the authorities. Any daycare shady enough to let a grown man make off with one of their charges, day after day, needed to be closed down. Stan was harmless–at least to humans–but there were some real weirdoes out there.
He’d run one or two of the kids over to Social Services, written a note that said their home was in an unsafe place, and dropped them off outside. Those kids got two scoops of ice cream and a Beanie Baby, which was pitifully inadequate, but you did what you could.
Kids like that were the reason that Stan never felt any guilt about killing guardian angels. If the damn things did any good, those kids wouldn’t have been in the mess they were in to begin with.
They sure weren’t very bright. You’d think that the angels would notice that a guy in a truck took the kids out for ice cream, one by one, and when they came back, their angels were missing. You’d think they’d get wise to the fact that something was happening. But they never did. Swoop, panic, flail, harpoon, tarp, ice cream.
(He occasionally thought of just getting an ice cream truck, but he hadn’t worked out the logistics of shooting harpoon guns over the heads of a crowd of children.)
Some of the higher orders of angels were different. He’d heard that thrones could tear you in half if you slipped up, and cherubs were downright nasty. You could tell cherub-hunters by how many limbs they were missing. Presumably they had to quit when they ran out of parts, although powdered cherub feathers would cause flesh to regrow, so if a hunter had a high pain tolerance and reasonable luck, they could probably keep going indefinitely.
Seraphim were easy by comparison. You could always hear them coming because they kept shouting in dead languages.
Stan mostly limited himself to guardian angels. Depending on which translation of which scholar you read, the other kinds might have limited numbers. You couldn’t just go around clubbing archangels like they were dodos, now could you? You’d run out and then nobody’d have any archangels and whatever ate them or relied on them to spread manna about or whatever would be out of luck. It would have been downright irresponsible to hunt archangels.
Plus they might be smart. Like elephants. They were smart. He’d heard that elephants would handle the bones of their dead, for all the world like they were mourning over them. Stan could believe it. He’d read an article that said they communicated through super low frequency sounds, practically a language, and once you go shooting things that had a language, what were you?
Angels, though–you could shoot a guardian angel full of devilwood and the angel standing next to it would look vaguely pained, as if the dead one had done something crass. It wouldn’t try to run. It’d look through you while you set up the next shot.
Stan would have shot a hundred guardian angels before saying so much an unkind word to an elephant.
ME: Hey, Kevin, I have a photo that will hit you right in the man-feels!
ME: *shows photo of the stormtrooper figure with the two little lego stormtroopers*
KEVIN: I’ve seen it. That does not hit me in the man-feels.
ME: What if Sarah McLaughlan was playing in the background?
KEVIN: No. It’d need to be a movie, where the dad stormtrooper calls to say “I’m coming home, honey,” and then the Death Star explodes and the baby stormtroopers are on the beach watching it blow up and then a shuttle lands and the dad stormtrooper gets out and they all hug and AND Sarah McLaughlan is playing. THEN there will be feels.
ME: I think you may have just designed geek dad kryptonite.
KEVIN: BRB, filming.
So you’ve heard me talk about my nice little town a couple of times, I imagine.
There’s a downtown–basically two streets with a traffic circle–a couple of restaurants, the co-op, the coffee shop I write at, and up the road a mile or two, where the interstate is, a big-box hardware store. It’s NICE. We’re the county seat, so there’s a couple government buildings, but we’re a super rural county so they’re not big.
I live in the woods, surrounded by pastures. The farmer I buy my meat from is about ten miles down the road. My neighbor keeps bees and has a falcon mews in the backyard. (Also trucks on blocks, because the South.) I sit in the backyard at night and there are whippoorwills and chuck-widows-wills calling.
I’ve lived here for six years, and barring occasional desires to head to the desert, I had sorta planned to die here, preferably while lying in the backyard listening to aforementioned whippoorwills.
Council just voted to nuke it from development orbit.
They just cleared the last hurdle to break ground on a planned development to house *60,000* people. This is one of those massive “planned city” developments.
A development of 5000, I could have maybe gritted my teeth, but they are literally dropping an entire CITY seven miles from my house.
Cities do not stay where you put them. Our population is slated to increase by 1900%. If I wanted to live in a gigantic suburban sprawl, I have lots and lots to choose from already, but yay, now it’s coming to me.
To say we don’t have any infrastructure to handle that is laughably understating the case. It’s just…insane. I mean, the primary road into the area is a four lane highway over a lake, and the road into town is two lanes with a traffic circle and a stoplight. And the developers are being super “It’s fiiiiiine, don’t worry your pretty little head about things like water quality, those rules only apply to people on wells, we’re building sewers next to the lake and the Haw River and that means we can cram LOTS OF PEOPLE IN and you should just relaaaaax. We’re professionals.”
(Nevermind HOW the county is somehow supposed to dredge up the money for all the infrastructure that this place wants…)
And they own all the land, so we can’t buy it away. Rezoning stalled them for over a year, but people sang “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” and this was the last ditch and it just ended last night. They break ground in sixty days, and start building houses in eighteen months.
It’s supposed to take thirty years, to hit full capacity, but I am so discouraged. I feel like I’m in mourning for the town. The only bright spot is that our property values are supposed to go up, which is sort of like ‘Your horse is going to die, but good news! Dogmeat’s selling at an all time high!’
So a few months back, I wrote a blog-post about being tired of Fantasyland.
It’s all still true. I can count the fantasies I have read in the last six months on the fingers of one hand.
That said, ZOMG, The Goblin Emperor is amazing, go read it, I stayed up until three in the morning last night reading it, it is SO GOOD.
The main character, Maia, is just incredibly sympathetic. He is nice. I ached for this character, the way I ached for Aerin back in the day, the yes-I-would-be-this-person ache.
And this made me think that maybe, in my initial post about being jaded to so much fantasy as a setting, I had overlooked something.
Maybe part of my problem is that I am having a hard time finding fantasy characters I like.
It’s not like the old days, when all you needed was a bookish heroine and/or one who was not interested in pretty dresses and you had my immediate unswerving loyalty for the rest of the book. I am now past the point where any given persecuted teenage girl is automatically my soul-sister,* where the fact that your family/village/tribe just doesn’t understand you gives you a free pass to my sympathies.
I have not been willing to read books about awful people for a long time, because their awfulness is not the least bit interesting to me, but I am also starting to lose patience with standard fantasy people. All the interchangeable protagonists with interchangeable names. Yes, you’re scared, yes, your suffering is very important to YOU, but it’s not enough to suffer at me any more. You must be interesting while you are doing it.
Furthermore, god help you, I must like you. If I do not like you–not merely pity you, but like you–you are done.
(There are plenty of people who will argue for unlikeable protagonists, and that is great. I am not decreeing what future writing should be for all. I am saying, I don’t read those books. Because if I don’t like the character, I will not spend time with them. This is not to say that they are not valuable. Phillip K. Dick wrote some valuable stuff that should be appreciated. By people other than me. Because I hate all the characters in his books. A lot.**)
For this, I could be accused of a failure of empathy (and go ahead, feel free, I offer you my admission of my failure of empathy as a gift.) If I were a good person, or at least a sophisticated reader, undoubtedly I could relate to anyone. Any old barbarian warlord would do. I could put myself in the shoes of the entire cast of Game of Thrones instead of “On a good day Tyrion but generally nobody and actually I stopped reading awhile ago because I could not care less what happens to any of these awful, awful people.”*** I would pour myself into the personas of wise-cracking urban fantasy heroines with their hidden faerie underworlds and their nifty super-powers and their on-again off-again relationships with hunky muscled fill-in-the-blanks. I would play Angst Along With Elric. (Follow the bouncing Stormbringer!)
But I can’t, and I don’t. I have dumped out too much of my sympathy on whiny heroes and farmboys with destinies who throw stupid temper tantrums for no apparent reason. The Strategic Sympathy Reserves are running low and I do not consider it worth the environmental damage to start cracking open the Sympathetic Shale. I am just…tired of all these people.
It’s not that characters have to be me. I do not require thirty-seven-year-old divorced and remarried writer protagonists with a gardening bent, and if I did, I would be pretty disappointed by now.
But I would like to read more about people who are kind.
Not…y’know…not the lady-of-the-manor kindness you find in a lot of Regencies, not Tireless Social Reformer archetype, or Look How Selfless I Am, but just…kind.
I know it when I see it, anyhow.
You can do any horrible thing you want to them, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “Write me a nice book without conflict!” Just…I look back at all the characters that I loved, really truly loved and who mattered–Aerin and Dr. Evan Wilson and Number Ten Ox and Brutha and Granny Weatherwax and Brother Cadfael and all the rest, and they were all good and most of them were kind (although it was a rather pointy kindness, at least in the case of Weatherwax.)
(Polite is also sadly lacking in many cases, as I may have lamented before.)
I am saying this badly, I think. I read back and there are huge holes where someone could shout things through, if they were so inclined. Perhaps I don’t know what I’m trying to say well enough to say it. I am not trying to shut up any character who is hard or angry, or tell any author that their characters have to be nice. No. If you need to write an angry and defiant character, write her. Someone will need that book, even if it isn’t me, or at least, isn’t me today.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t actually realize, until reading The Goblin Emperor, how much I was still willing to give to a book where the main character was so intensely sympathetic.
And it pointed up, in such sharp relief, how little I’ve been willing to give to a lot of fantasy books I’ve tried to read for a long time.
*Except at certain times of month for certain forms of comfort reading.
**Someone said to me once “They’re very human.” No, they’re very asshole. I know lots and lots of humans, and none of them behave like that. If they did, I would not hang around with them.
*Fine, I would prefer Arya not die, but given the series, the only way to do that is to stop reading.
“Yay! I have lots of originals! I have three cons coming up, but that’s fine because I have LOTS OF ORIGINALS! And this is a small con and some of them are expensive, so I will still have lots left over! I’ll just need to do some small quick stuff for the next one and it’ll be great!”
One con later…
“I HAVE NO ORIGINALS LEFT.”
The worst part about this is that you can’t even really complain (note that I am complaining anyway) because obviously your art sold and that’s a wonderful thing, it’s just that…um…was kinda counting on a couple of those to fill out panels at those later cons and now I have to scramble. My diamond shoes are too tight!
The only people who will be sympathetic are other artists and my mother. I accept this.
(A huge thanks to the generous buyers of BayCon. You are awesome and I am delighted so much art found good homes. I just hadn’t scheduled for quite…how…awesome…y’all would be…)