Beloved beastie

For those of you who are SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) members, I’m teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon, February 3rd, on writing fantasy at the national conference in New York City. I’ll talk a bit and give prompts, most of which will probably come from this blog. Participants will write, and then we’ll discuss. The workshop will last 2 ½ hours, so there will be lots of time to get into the weeds. I’d love to see you there!

Onto the post! On October 18, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I have a “beastly” question:

What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:

The character does something literally inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.

… how do you get across the shock of what they’ve done, yet not lose reader sympathy?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Aster: Have you read the YA novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo? One of the main characters- Kaz Brekker- does some pretty horrific things yet (and this part depends on interpretations) still is a fairly likable character.

Chrisite V Powell: What about showing the inhuman culture so that the reader believes that he thinks this is normal? If it’s his POV, maybe a mini flashback about someone else who did it (maybe worse?). His reaction will also say a lot, when he’s confronted. 

Melissa Mead: That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, but I’m not sure it’s enough- or if the inhuman culture itself will turn readers off.

I’ve never issued a trigger warning for a post before, but if you’re prone to being nauseated, you may want to skip this one–not because of anything Melissa Mead wrote but because of where I take it.

Most days, Reggie and his pal Demi have a play date in our backyard. Demi’s owner and I walk around and chat while the dogs play or ignore each other or bark at passersby. Demi often takes a poop, which Reggie sometimes eats. Ew! And double yuck! This is exceedingly inhuman behavior!

I may not be willing to smell Reggie’s breath for a year, but he’s still adorable, with that big nose, pleading eyes, tell-tale tail. My love for him is undiminished despite this disgusting propensity that, like Melissa Mead’s character, he sees nothing wrong with.

So that’s one strategy: Make your monster (demon?) appealing to your POV character. If your reader likes the narrator, he probably won’t be irreversibly turned off by the monster’s behavior.

Sympathy can be agonized sympathy. I think of the TV series House (high school and up). House, a brilliant doctor, is self-destructive and insensitive. Sometimes he acts cruelly, but he’s also saving lives, not because he loves humanity but because he hates to fail and loves puzzles. He has a single friend and could be the source of the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” I used to watch and squirm and want the best for House and keep watching. A big part of my sympathy for House is that he does save lives. So that’s another strategy: Give the reader a reason to care about the monster. Rescuing others is a time-honored reason.

Among the worst practices I can think of is cannibalism, and yet the late sci fi writer Robert Heinlein made a good intellectual case for it in his classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up). (This is cannibalism following death from an unrelated cause–people aren’t killed so they can be eaten. And the book was written decades before mad cow disease was discovered.) Another strategy: Make a thoughtful argument for the offending behavior. Readers will be fascinated.

I suspect it will also help if the demon makes clear his perspective on his act. For instance, he can invite other characters to do the same or participate. He can ask, If you don’t do this (the beastly thing), how do you do that (which shows how the behavior functions in his society)? And, likewise, he might react with horror at some human customs. For example, he might be aghast that humans eat together, because in his culture eating is intensely private. There’s another strategy: Make the reader understand the demon’s viewpoint.

One more: Reveal the monster’s feelings, which, presumably, the reader will recognize and identify with. If, when he becomes aware of his companions’ shock, he responds with confusion, dismay, even resentment, the reader is likely to relate. Even if he isn’t the POV character, we can reveal his emotions through body language, dialogue, the understanding reached by our POV character, a chapter in a tome about demons and demon society, and probably more. For example, I understood Reggie’s disgusting behavior better when I read in a newspaper that dogs don’t have the region in their brains that we have to register disgust.

Readers can have a range of responses to the demon’s act. They may be intrigued or pleased by the surprise–they didn’t see that coming!–or delighted by the author’s daring. They may recognize that the behavior is beyond the pale, but it fits and, if we’re really cooking, couldn’t be otherwise.

Worst case scenario, a few readers close the book. We can’t please everyone. On the other hand, some will enjoy the demon’s behavior but will stop reading a book if they think the writing is too cautious. That goes for gatekeepers, too. Editors and agents vary. Some may be put off, but others will be thrilled to find a writer who colors outside the lines.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is picnicking with friends. The cold baked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad are scrumptious, and the ants, who invade, think so, too. Your MC or another character–you decide–picks up an ant and eats it and asks people to send more her way. Write the scene. Make the reader at least understand and tolerate the ant-eating.

∙ Write the above picnic scene from the POV of one of the ants, or, using the first-person plural POV discussed in a recent post, from the POV of the colony. While anthropomorphizing as little as possible, get the reader to be on the side of the ants.

∙ One of your characters fights the kind of fires that destroys thousands of acres. There’s no counting the people, wildlife, property, and land he’s saved. However, in his personal life he’s a relationship arsonist who blows up all his human connections. Write his reunion with his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for many years. Make this meet-up go disastrously because of his self-sabotage. In the writing, make the reader suffer out of sympathy for him and the sister.

∙ This “Snow White” takes place in an authoritarian society. When the hunter is given the order to kill Snow White, he has no moral compunctions, because it’s right and a duty to obey the queen. Write the scene in the forest when Snow White presents an alternate ethic of compassion and individual liberty. You decide if she succeeds.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. That’s a very helpful post! I have a creature, who is a complete monstrosity, doing whatever evil it can do, and it can do quite a lot! However, through certain circumstances, my monster begins to FALL IN LOVE with a human (cue ‘Beauty and the Beast’ music), and we proceed to observe his pitiful attempts to be human, even though he can’t. When it comes to creating empathy for monsters, I think it’s really important to keep everything in perspective: monsters are super dangerous, but also, sometimes, they can have emotions, which are often kept hidden inside. Monsters are hardly ever seen as vulnerable strength-wise, so when they show vulnerability emotionally, it tugs at my heartstrings.

    On another note, my sister and I discovered ‘The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre,’ at Barns and Noble, and I am lOving it!

  2. Thank you for this post!

    And, um, you kinda nailed it. Serpent-demons are cannibals. (actually, they just eat whatever they can catch, but the harder a “prey” is to catch, the more prestigious it is.)

    The heart of the book is Malak choosing between the demon ways he was raised with and the new ways he learns from his father’s side of the family.

  3. I’m a fantasy writer (and reader!), and I love anything and everything magical and unbelievable. The problem is, whenever I try and create a system of magic, it’s either too similar to something someone else has created, or the cons of using magic (because I can’t just make it an unlimited resource available to everyone) outweigh the pros and thus magic is very nearly useless in my book. Does anyone have any tips on creating magical systems or powers that are original, and where there is backlash but not enough to dissuade from using it?

      • Everyone is born with a sort of ‘aura’, a field of energy that surrounds them. With the right help and practice, you can learn to control this aura, to perform spells and other sorts of things. But your aura will slowly run out (it will regenerate, but it’s not fast), until it will eventually begin to feed on your sanity and your life force. I’m just afraid this might be too similar to other systems and not challenging enough for my characters…

        • I wouldn’t worry about it being too similar, because there are “magic systems” out there that everybody recognizes because they’re so common, but there are plenty of good books that give them an interesting twist.

          As for not challenging enough, it actually sounds like it has lots of potential. Oddly enough, it makes me think of something that just happened to me today. I use a scooter to get around. About once a week or so, I need to plug it in to recharge. Not very challenging, right?

          But going home for Christmas and New Years threw off my system for remembering to recharge. I was going across a parking lot when the battery indicator lights started dropping. From 5 green dots to 4. 3. 2. 1 green light. 2 orange lights. 1 orange light. Red light!

          I got home ok. But maybe your characters could be caught off guard and realize that they have less energy than they thought. Maybe they caught a minor cold, and thought it was no big deal. Or something they ate, or something in the water, made their energy trickle away, and they don’t notice until the worst possible moment.

        • I think your idea sounds rather unique. Maybe I just haven’t read anything like that before myself, but I believe you have plenty of wiggle room to make it all your own. I wouldn’t worry about being too similar to others. Drawing inspiration is what we do!

          I’ve toyed with magic in a few of my stories, but nothing big yet. I have a snow sprite in a Christmas story. Her magic isn’t anything extraordinary or world-changing, but she goes around on Christmas Eve and adds a little extra decorative flare to the Christmas trees and homes. I made her unique in other ways instead of focusing so much on her magic, though I did explore that a little. For example, she’s physically the size of your hand. She has a blue tint to her skin, like snow, and prefers the cold to warmth. Her magic comes when she touches objects, such as ornaments, and sometimes when she laughs and sneezes it comes out on accident. She has the “power” to send swirls and sparkles onto the objects, but only in one color, the color she is born with. For Crystal, the MC, it was silver. I’m not sure if this helps much, and it is a much lighter scale, but I guess I share it to say that the magic can manifest and appear in different ways. As well as focusing on the rules of the magic realm you create, don’t forget that you can bend all aspects of the magic instead of just the host. If magic is dependent on the energy of its host, so to speak, how do you handle the uncontrolled portions? What age does it manifest at? What purpose does it have? Crystal was born with her magic, but she went to school and trained to learn how to use it and how to approach the outside world as well. Her purpose was to decorate Christmas trees for children and families on Christmas morning.

  4. Hello, Miss Levine and everyone! I recently read your book From Writer to Writer (From think to ink) and it was so helpful. You had the most helpful Poetry section.

    So here’s my question: One of the main character’s POV is in free verse. She has a backstory that is woven in closer to the end of the story, but it’s hard to write it in free verse. Should I change her POV to the “regular” form? I would hate to do that, because her personality comes out better in verse.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I hope you stick with verse! You might like to read OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse and MAKE LEMONADE and the other two books in the series by Virginia Euwer Wolff, all in free verse.

      You do mean free verse rather than blank verse (iambic pentameter), right?

  5. Wow! But what if you want your character to sympathize with the bad guy. I’m not trying to be black and white in this, but if everyone thought the bad guy was the good guy but just a troublemaker. But then you switch the roles and make the bad guy the good guy?

    • It sounds like that would be an interesting twist. And sympathetic “bad guys” are actually quite desirable these days. People like exploring gray areas.
      In one of my WIPs, I have two antagonists that sort of represent opposite extremes. One is pretty clearly “bad” throughout. The other starts out “good”, and even after he turns at the halfway point, his motivation is relatable. Only his extreme means are evil.

  6. Question: Long ago, a writer friend told me that my characters were “too altruistic”- that real people would never be that willing to make major sacrifices for the greater good. ow do you feel about characters like that?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Geez! Of course there are real people who sacrifice EVERYTHING for the greater good. Just think of firefighters, to name quite a few! Of course, we need to make such characters real, with flaws and other virtues.

      • Thanks! The reason it’s come up is that in Book 2 my half-demon hero has to choose between getting his heart’s desire and giving it up for a greater good. By that point he’s stopped seeing his nearest relative as lunch, but he’s still got his demonic territorial instinct, flash temper, and cluelessness about a lot of basic “warm-blood” behavior, so I hope he’s ok.

        • To me, I think what would make the biggest difference is if he struggled. If the hero faced this choice and went, “Of course I’ll do it! Each man’s duty is to the greater good, and against that, my puny sacrifice is nothing (or some other speechifying),” that would be annoying. But if the character stops and thinks about what they are giving up, realizes how much this hurts them, but chooses good anyway, I would enjoy reading that.

    • I think there are definitely people out there that would be willing to sacrifice deeply for the greater good. I think it happens every day! The military is an example, among others. There are martyrs all throughout history. I think it’s perfectly realistic and we should certainly incorporate those kinds of characters into our stories! That said, I also believe everyone faces temptation and struggles through decision making.

  7. Hi Gail! Longtime fan! I am now 21 and am currently doing my Creative Writing capstone class, my last class I’ll have to take as an undergraduate EVER! As part of the course, we have to write a reflective essay on a “mentor” writer, reading a fictional work of theirs and also any interviews or books they have on writing craft. The first writing craft book I ever picked up was in 6th grade and was your “Writing Magic” book. It changed me for the better and I frequently return to it for inspiration. Long story short, I picked you! I’ll be reading Ella Enchanted since it is such a quintessential book of yours as well as “Writing Magic” and “Writer to Writer”. Just thought I’d drop you a line to let you know and to thank you for the inspiration you’ve been to me all these years!

    Much love,

    Marisa

  8. Does anyone have ideas for naming countries and towns in a fantasy world?
    I have a list of names for my characters but the towns and countries they live in and travel to are unnamed.

    • Town names say a lot about your world. A lot are named after their founders, so they might have the same last name as a minor character, for instance. Some are descriptions like Fairview or Apple Valley (I’ve never counted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are over fifty cities named Fairview in the US). You can switch languages, using google translate, for a descriptive name, and claim the names came from a different race or origin than the current one (many of our US states are named with Native American words). You can look up names of wildlife that live there and use those names (Tanager, Tercel, Salix, Avocet, and Cypress show up on my map). You can use cameos for friends (Morgan’s Crossing, Tranlan, and Clarebridge have secret references for me). You can switch a few letters for a secret reference to real places (I have a Nacle Sea named after the Salton sea–NaCl is the chemical formula for salt). You can look at baby names with geographical meanings, even combining name elements to make your own: for instant, the suffix -sey means island and the suffix -ley means meadow or field.
      Any of that help?

    • Well, I agree with Madame Powell, towns CAN be named after their founder (such as Baum’s Oz), and sometimes they’ll give you a hint as to who might live in said city (Seuss’ Whoville), or it could have an important characteristic about that city (Sir Barrie’s Neverland, or the Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood). Places that don’t have names with significant attributions to them can be just as charming, though. Such as Birdsall’s Gardam Street, or Rowling’s Knockturn Alley, or Number 12 Grimmauld Place. My own personal novel is a world that has been christened a seventeen-word name. It’s long, but it pirouettes right off of the tongue. Names have power! Have fun!

    • I often translate words with significant meaning to Latin and drop a few letters or rearrange the letters to form a new word. For example I might have a goddess of sweetness. The Latin word for sweetness is dulcedo. The definition is sweetness, charm, pleasantness, suavity, quality of sweetness. I don’t like the word dulcedo much for a name, so I might drop a few letters. Or add one or two. I just play around with it until I like what I hear. I might name her Cedo or Ulcedo or Lecedo or Uldoci! Not only is that a good way to come up with unique words but it is fun! If you have a language that you speak (English or another language) it might be fun to use that. You don’t have to limit yourself to Latin by any means.
      You also might try combining two words that are meaningful and rearranging those letters and sounds. For example I’ll take charm and suavity and name my goddess Sarimu.
      Hope some of this was helpful! 🙂

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