There was a Twitter tag-discussion-thing I followed today, without participating (for several reasons, mostly because it moved far too fast to just ‘jump in’), about YA fiction, specifically about religion in YA fiction. There were arguments about good and evil, how good is represented, how some authors preferred to represent evil, about the place of strong religious themes–about a lot of things.
The thing that interested me the most about the discussion, which was between I guess a couple of dozen writers, wasn’t what was discussed, but rather what wasn’t discussed. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ came up again and again. But there wasn’t one mention of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
As a writer, good and evil don’t interest me–not in the sense in which they were being discussed. I think ‘evil’ especially is a label that gets tossed around far too casually, a kind of catch-all that covers over the real issues and causes of ill behaviour. Too many writers use it as an excuse, too–“It’s fine to have the hero kill these sentient creatures because they’re evil and he’s good”, no, that never sits comfortably with me. Good and evil are about perspective–if you have elves who are ‘good’ and orcs who are ‘evil’, then clearly you’re siding with the elves. If you wrote the story from the orcs’ perspective, the labels would be reversed. Real life is, of course, more complicated, which is why I have little interest in good and evil and far more interest in right and wrong. Because although what’s ‘right’ can get blurry at times, there are certain things that are, to me, ‘right’, and certain things that are, to me, ‘wrong’. I’m less about ‘sides’ (good vs evil) and more about ‘actions’ (doing what’s right).
So the themes that excite me, as a writer, are things like … things like ‘if a wrong act is necessary then could it become, in some way, right?’ and ‘how can you know, truly know, what the ‘right thing’ to do is?’, these questions that have no easy, simple answer, these questions that have to be explored in order to find some kind of understanding–and of course I love it when characters do the right thing even when it’s hard–even when it’s impossible–and when they refuse to do wrong even when it’d make things so much simpler and easier–even when ‘doing wrong’ would get them everything that they want–these are the things that I love to write about. It’s most prevalent in Miya Black, because she’s my interpretation of the hero archetype–she is, in every sense, MY hero–but I think it comes through in a lot of my main characters. I don’t think my books are preachy and I certainly don’t intend to stand on a soapbox and tell people what to do, quite the opposite, another theme I come back to time and again is “Think for yourself, don’t let other people think for you, and DO NOT blindly accept that those with power have your best interests at heart”. And ‘doing the right thing’ doesn’t make my characters universally loved, again, quite the opposite–as in real life, the ‘right thing’ isn’t always the ‘popular thing’. But that’s part of it too–Miya does the right thing, no matter what, and this polarises people, they’re either repulsed by or attracted to her. She makes enemies but she also makes friends–she inspires loyalty from those few who understand.
My characters don’t always make the right decisions, either–just like the gap between ‘right’ and ‘popular’, there’s also a big difference being ‘right’ and ‘smart’. The two could almost be said to be mutually exclusive a lot of the time. In fact, book two of Miya Black could basically be subtitled “Every Single Decision Miya Makes Is Wrong”. But all of her bad choices come from good intentions, of her trying to do the right thing. That’s another theme I like, “Action without understanding is futile, even dangerous”. You can’t do ‘good’ unless you understand the implications of your actions–you have to know who and why the bad guys are before you can fight them. Book three of Miya Black is really where these themes start to come through, most of the plot wouldn’t have occurred if Miya had sense enough to leave well enough alone, but that’s part of who she is; she is a person who will fight wrong wherever she finds it, whatever the personal cost. In book three, she starts to realise this–that this is who she is, because she’s put in situations where she’s faced with wrong, where she’s given a free chance to walk away, where nobody would blame her for doing nothing–in fact, where she’d be rewarded for just walking away. Does she? Of course she doesn’t. That’s not who she is, that will never be who she is. Book three is really where Miya starts to grow into herself, where she starts to grow up, and her personal character development from the start of the book to the end is my favourite thing about it. If you read the first chapters and then skip ahead to the last chapters, there’s a stark difference in how Miya acts, even the way she talks. But if you read through, you might not even notice the change. It’s actually even more noticeable if you go back to the first book, she’s so idealistic and young and naive and romantic in that one, it’s almost hard to read when you know what happens later. And yet her ideals, her core, that’s something that never changes. She’s uncompromising in her beliefs; you don’t suffer bullies, you stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, you do the right thing. All of my main characters have a ‘curse’, some more obvious than others. Miya has a couple, actually. But her big curse, the curse at the core of her character, is that she (almost) always (eventually) knows what the right thing to do is. And I believe–this is my personal belief–that if you know, truly know, what the right thing to do is, then you cannot ignore that. It’s not even a choice. Of course, Miya learns other things too, things that challenge these beliefs–that the world is unfair, that people aren’t always what they seem, that being right isn’t always enough. That even if you fight your hardest, you can still lose. This forms most of the internal conflict of the series, Miya trying to resolve the gaps between her beliefs and the harsh realities of the world. Of course, there’s always that secondary conflict, the conflict central to Miya; freedom and responsibility. She’s a pirate, she’s fiercely independent and adventure-loving and she doesn’t need ANYONE to do ANYTHING. She’s a princess, she’s compassionate and sensitive and bound to her kingdom–to the people she’s responsible for–with chains stronger than steel. Pirate. Princess. Can you truly be both? Can you embody both freedom AND responsibility? That’s the central question behind the whole series. Exploring possible answers is fun. Well, so is having Miya kick ever-increasing amounts of arse, of course. It’s all layers.
Phew! That was fun, I needed to get that off my chest. Have you noticed that writers like to talk? I mean a LOT. Especially about their own writing. I think it’s necessary sometimes, though. When you’re working at the fiddly sentence-by-sentence level every day, working on making things flow and using the right words and hunting for typos, it can be easy to forget the themes and reasons for writing. Even at the ‘plot’ level, I sometimes let myself slip–I let the themes I’m trying to explore get buried by events. So I think it’s good, sometimes, to step back and think/talk/write about things at a higher level, about the whole big thing.
Now back to nitty-gritty low-level editing.