Strong female leads aren’t enough

Along with the Demon’s Heart trilogy, I’m working on another series that’s been brewing in one form or another for a good decade now. I’ve worked at it on and off through the years, but it went through a long stretch on the shelf for one reason:

Both the main characters were boys.

I felt somehow that I was betraying my fellow women by writing a story in which the female characters play only supporting roles. I read articles about how we need more strong female leads, how girls need better literary role models, how vital female authors are in battling sexism.

And, you know, I agree with all that. I like reading MG and YA books about girls who are strong, compassionate, and resilient. In fact, after reading a post from a fellow blogger about how she made a special effort to seek out female authors this year, I went back to my Year in Books to see how much of my reading list was written by women.

The answer? Two-thirds. Easy. And I wasn’t even remotely making an effort to read more women authors.

(What I also found interesting was that there were two books I read this year with grossly shallow female characters, and only one of them was written by a man. But that’s for another post.)

Our girls today have an abundance of literary role models to learn from, and for that I am so grateful. I can’t wait until my girls are old enough to read The Penderwicks or Princess Academy or Jane Eyre or Tuesdays at the Castle.

But at the same time, I can’t help thinking–who are our boys looking up to?

See, most of my friends growing up were boys. While I spent most of my youth fielding jabs about all my boyfriends, the truth was, they were practically brothers to me. I loved them to pieces, and I worried about them a lot. I was painfully aware, especially in middle school and high school, that the fictional characters they idolized were often either trained killers or sex-obsessed. Often both.

And the thing is, that doesn’t just affect boys. Just as the portrayal of women in fiction affect what boys think women should be, the portrayal of men in fiction affects what girls think men should be. Do you know how many girls I’ve met who are in love with Captain Jack Harkness? Do you understand how this is a problem? The man is (according to popular opinion) gorgeous, charming, and willing to sleep with anything that moves. Is that the kind of man you want your daughter going on a date with?

What worries me even more is how often these stereotypically violent, shallow men are romanticized and “redeemed,” which often just means excused with the most fleeting explanation possible. I’m in the middle of the Lunar Chronicles, which are incredibly well written with a depth of world-building that makes me drool. BUT. Wolf? I’m sorry. “He can’t help it” doesn’t make me fall madly in love with a man who has spent his life tearing throats out. And as for Captain Thorne, you can’t spend two books setting him up as being dumb as a post and twice as shallow, then convince me that he’s turned his whole life around and suddenly has hidden depths.


Our boys AND GIRLS need upstanding male characters as much as they need upstanding female characters. If we want our boys and girls to grow up respecting each other and capable of working together, children’s literature is a good place to start modeling that.


Let them die!

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to stories. Love triangles. Zombies. Unnecessary swearing. Insta-love.


This is a plague that runs rampant in stories today, be they in books, TV shows, or movies. If a character you like dies, have no fear! The writer(s) will find a way to prove that the character actually cheated death. Even if this character has “died” three or four times before, there’s no need to worry.

Last night, I watched the newest Doctor Who. They brought back a character who died at the end of last season (who, incidentally, has “died” at least three times in the new series alone). Thirty minutes later, this character was “dead” once more. And I had zero emotional reaction. Because, seriously, people–when was the last time a main character actually died in Doctor Who? (You may bring up a certain beloved character from season 8, but I’m not convinced he’s really dead for good, and I won’t be until Clara is long gone.)

(Which brings me to another obnoxious trend of the latest Doctor Who series–this stupid fixation on claiming that the Doctor is going to die. People. The ENTIRE STORY is based on the fact that the DOCTOR DOES NOT DIE. Cut the drama and find a more creative plot device.)

But seriously. If you’re going to kill your characters, make it count. Leave them dead and make your other characters (and readers) deal with the heartbreak. This is something I love about the Harry Potter series–even in a world of magic, characters who die stay dead. Not even the Resurrection Stone could truly bring someone back. The grief shapes the story and has a far more profound impact on the reader than a wishy-washy she’s-dead-but-no-she’s-not-just-kidding sort of event.

How do you feel about characters coming back from the dead? Are there any other plot devices that make you crazy?

Writhing and Reveling

I’m on the third Anne book now, Anne of the Island. Last night, while I was staying up way too late reading it, I ran across the funniest scene that rang all too true with me as a writer.

For the next fortnight Ann writhed or reveled, according to mood, in her literary pursuits. Now she would be jubilant over a brilliant idea, now despairing because some contrary character would not behave properly. Diana could not understand this.

Make them do as you want them to,” she said.

“I can’t,” mourned Anne. “Averil is such an unmanageable heroine. She will do and say things I never meant her to. Then that spoils everything that went before and I have to write it all over again.” (89)

I feel your pain, Anne. There are more than a few of my characters who are still causing me this kind of grief. I take comfort in the fact that it means my characters are developed well enough to have a mind of their own.

What about you? Do you find yourself struggling with unmanageable characters? What other writing quirks do you have that non-writers just don’t understand?

Cabel Takes a Hand

Hi all! Cabel here. I’m taking over for today while Emily is recovering from last week. She’s over in a corner right now muttering about businessmen, ill-timed inspiration, and soap bottles. Frankly, I’m too afraid to ask. She did tell me, before she went to her corner, that I was to “extend her deepest apologies” that she hasn’t been able to respond to comments or keep up with everyone’s hogs lately.

(What? What about bogs?)

Oh. Blogs. Sorry. I wondered why she was so worried about a bunch of pigs. We don’t have blogs in my world. From what she’s told me, I’m writing a letter that will get picked up by someone called Internet and shown to people around the world. It must take an awful long time, but I bet Internet gets to meet some interesting people.

To be honest, I’m not sure why Emily picked me to fill in for her. I mean, there are a lot of other people in Demon’s Heart who could write a better letter than I could.

Rustav, for example. He’s traveled everywhere! You should hear him talk about walking the endless sands on the other side of the mountains, or sailing through a storm in the middle of the ocean, or even just the sailors he met in Markuum. I learned a new word or two from hearing about the sailors, let me tell you.

Dantzel would give you a rant about the king and the Guards that would make you want to pick up a sword and storm the castle right here and now. I hate them as much as she does, but boy, when she gets steamed, you’ll think you didn’t know what anger was before you met her. And she doesn’t always know when to stop. She’s had more than a few run-ins with the Guards because she won’t back down.

I would even have chosen Anton over me. Granted, he’s old, and he talks kind of slow and dry. But nobody knows more folk tales than he does. He can keep the tales coming over a fire longer than anyone I’ve ever met.

Me? I’m the errand boy for Pa’s store. The farthest I’ve been is to old Spinner’s house on the edge of the village. Pa keeps me close. He doesn’t want to lose anyone else to the Guards. I guess I understand, but sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t fight, doesn’t even resist. Doesn’t it make him angry, seeing them strut around after everything that happened? I wasn’t even there, not really, and I still want to beat those jerk Guards into the dirt.

Only problem is, I’m so small, I’m not sure I could reach their heads in a fight.

But I get the feeling that everything’s about to change. Something’s going to happen in Courei. Rustav tries to keep it off his face, but he knows too much about it. I’m scared that it’s going to hurt our village even more, but maybe it’ll kick people into action. Maybe we’ll have the strength to kick the murdering king off the throne. And maybe I’ll get to be a part of it, even if I am little.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this blog. Time to hand it off to Internet and send him on his way. If you see him on his journey, give him a good meal. Traveling is a long and hungry business.

Quirky Monday

I’m a little late getting the writing prompt out today. Last week was INSANE and I took this morning off from blogging to work on a crazy-intense scene from the sequel to Demon’s Heart. So now that Scout’s awake and throwing her binkie out of the crib, I guess I better hurry to get it posted:


What’s your character’s quirk? Write a scene where it’s prominent.


If you’re looking for a good resource on character quirks, check out this post over at Inkcouragement.

And don’t forget to link up! If you post a response on your blog before Friday, link to it in the comments of my blog and I’ll post it on Friday.

Happy Monday!

Monday Nostalgia

It’s an early start for me this morning, with edits to send off today and a classroom visit tomorrow to prepare for, so I thought I’d get the writing prompt out early.

As a reminder, here’s what happens:

1. I post the prompt on Monday.
2. You post a link to your response in the comments or send in your response to bumblesbooks at gmail dot com.
3. I post my favorites on Friday, possibly along with my own excerpt.


Find a place that fills one of your characters with nostalgia. Write a brief scene showing why that place is so important to him or her.


Looking forward to your responses!

Outline? What Outline?

Does anyone else feel like the sole purpose of outlines is to be thrown away?

Maybe my characters are just particularly unruly, but it seems like the second I sit down to type, my careful planning goes out the window. Oh, sure, elements of it remain; but I generally have to re-outline halfway through, and then that one gets tossed as well.

The funny thing is, I can’t work without an outline, even if it’s not what I’m writing. For example, last week, I got to a point in my manuscript where I had just strayed too far from my plan, and I got stuck fast. I knew what needed to happen, but there were too many scenes and parallel timelines getting tangled up in my head. I wrote and scribbled and doodled and made arrows and charts and it all failed. Finally, I stuck my little Scout in her stroller and dragged my husband out for a walk so that I could talk it through in the open air with lots of wild hand gestures.

It worked! The sequencing was clear, all the characters were taken care of, and everything had its place. We walked home, I made a simple, neat flow chart, and was satisfied. The next day, I sat down to write what I had charted the day before.

And that darn Cabel went veering off into left field, taking all the other characters with him.

So my flow chart is relatively obsolete, but at least parallel enough to what’s really happening that I can keep leaning on it.

What about you other outliners? Do you stick pretty close to what you’ve planned, or do you find yourself writing something completely different?

Five-year-olds are genius character developers

Most of my stories start out as a scene in a place I don’t know with characters I don’t know. It takes me a lot of work to dig into my characters and figure out who they are, why they’re there, where they’re going, and so on and so forth.

Which means that during the character development phase of writing, I revert to a five-year-old.

I sit down with a notebook, write the character’s name at the top of the page, and ask why over and over again, long past the point of sanity. Why is she wearing long sleeves in the summer? To hide the scars on her arms. Why does she have scars on her arms? Because she tried to break up a knife fight. Why was she breaking up a knife fight? Because she was trying to keep one of the guys from getting killed. Why did she care what happened to him? Because he’s the only person who knows where her brother is who ran away three years ago.

And that’s generally the point where my questions explode. Wait, what? She has a lost brother? Why did he run away? How did she feel about it? Did they get along? Has she been looking for him? Has she heard anything from him since then?

So I take each of those branches and why them to death too. Usually, as my characters develop, so does my plot. Motivations become clear, side plots sneak in, and important details begin to organize themselves for slow reveal.

How do you flesh out your characters? Do they come full of detail, or does it take effort to learn about them?

Proud, Prejudiced, and . . . Lovable?

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice twice, both times going into it with the intention of hating Mr. Darcy. After all, why would anybody like the guy? He’s arrogant, tactless, and altogether unpleasant. But both times, I closed the book with a wholehearted love of that stiff, prickly Englishman.

This time, I picked it up to find out just how Jane Austen managed to make thousands of women, young and old, swoon for a complete jerk, especially when there’s the oh-so-perfect Mr. Bingley at his side.

Here’s the thing about Bingley: he’s boring. So boring. He’s handsome and kind and friendly; he’s already where he’s supposed to be. And he’s kind of a dope. Totally clueless about his psycho sisters. Clueless about Darcy. Clueless about Jane.

Darcy has great flaws. He’s insufferably rude, with no tolerance for anyone but himself, his family, and Bingley. But nobody would love Darcy if that were all the book was about. He gets startled out of his complacent jerkhood by a pair of fine eyes. He fights it, long and hard; and even when he gives in, it’s utterly without grace. When you finally begin to see the goodness buried deep inside of him, it’s certainly not before he’s a smooth talker. It’s because he acts, because he does everything in his power to protect a hopelessly silly girl just to see Elizabeth’s worries eased.

We love Darcy because he wins. He’s crippled by his own weaknesses, but he gets past them. He lets go of his pride. He changes.

So what are your characters’ flaws? How do they get past them? What motivates them to change?

To the well-organized mind . . .

You know that part in Stranger Than Fiction where Harold Crick finally reads the manuscript? And how, after an entire movie of fighting that narrative voice that said he was going to die, he knew that there was no way out, that he had to die because the story would be ruined otherwise?

One of my characters totally just did that to me.

I had a very happy ending in mind for this particular character. It was going to be heartwarming. And then I was dashing my way through the final chapters, everything going according to plan, and suddenly another character is sobbing over this character’s lifeless body. What?!

Sheesh. The life of a writer is brutal. Excuse me while I go mourn the passing of a figment of my imagination.