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This one time at Writer's Camp…

A Curiously Random Theme

I hate writing tropes and yet, every single bestseller has a common theme to it. I buy them even when I know they almost always have the same commonality. I bet you can guess what it is if you really put your mind to it.

My family likes to procreate. I mean, really likes it. I have a lot of brothers and sisters (half and foster, no full), and those brothers and sisters have quite a few kids themselves. I counted 13 brothers and sisters just now, and that’s not counting the however many sperm donor has floating around. Of those 13, 8 have kids that I know of. That’s a lot of nephews and nieces, no doubt. So as I said before, big family.

No, we’re not Catholic. At least, I’m pretty sure nobody is. Well, Billy and Josh might be, primarily because of the families they married into. Most of them run along the lines of agnostic/spiritualist, with one or two Baptists thrown in (guesstimating here). I think it’s just that they really like sex. As an older brother to many sisters, this grosses me out a bit. Because hey, who said anybody’s little sisters could grow up and be adults, right?

It also makes me feel like a turd, because I can’t even keep up with how many nieces and nephews I have at the moment. I know Jenny just had her first baby (a girl), and Tony’s girlfriend is pregnant. Courtney is pregnant and due in a few months, and… you get the point.

Yes, my family could probably have been the extras for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. You know what scene I’m talking about.

In case you don’t… just go and drown a kitten while you’re at it. Loser.

But I was in my kitchen earlier tonight and started thinking about my (rather large) family and fiction and I realized that most main characters in novels are from small families where tragedy has struck. I thought I was severely mistaken (and delusional, since it was kind of late and I was watching the reboot of Star Trek) until I started looking at the books on my shelves. Specifically, young adult books.

  • Percy Jackson – (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) – bastard son of Poseidon, raised by a single mom and her horrendous boyfriend. A prophecy is involved.
  • Katniss Everdeen – (The Hunger Games) – father died in an explosion, mother nearly incapable of taking care of herself, leaving main character in charge of younger sibling.
  • Jamie Carpenter – (Department Nineteen) – Father is branded a terrorist and is murdered by secret agents on his front yard. Is the only child.
  • Story – (War of the Seasons) – Father and younger twin siblings die in a car accident, mother is not around. A prophecy is involved.
  • Tessa Grey – (The Infernal Devices) – Parents dead, guardian dead, brother missing in another country far away.
  • Princess Adele – (Vampire Empire) – Mother died when she was young, has younger brother, father is alive but busy running a kingdom.
  • Puck Connolly – (The Scorpio Races) – Parents dead, older brother is abandoning family to find work on mainland, leaving the young girl alone with another brother.
  • Everett Singh – (Planesrunner) – Father disappears, parents divorced, has a little sister.
  • Kira Walker – (Partials) – Parents dead, no family, living in the remnants of a human dystopia,
  • Benson Fischer – (Variant) – Parents dead, no family. Living in a dystopian society.
  • Harry Potter – (Harry Potter) – Parents dead, living with hateful relatives, deprived of love. A prophecy is involved.

I thought it was me and my reading selection. Perhaps, I thought, it was a sign that I needed to broaden my reading habits. But then I started looking at all of my books and realized something startlingly similar.

  • Harry Dresden – (The Dresden Files) – Parents dead, raised in foster homes until he runs away at 16.
  • Widdershins – (The Widdershins Adventures) – Orphaned, alone, abandoned.
  • Athena Sinistra – (The Darkship Series) – Only child, father pretty much ignores her, mother missing/dead.
  • Pevensie Children – (Chronicles of Narnia) – Father dead, mother sends them off to the country to live during a war. A prophecy is involved.

I could keep going, but again, I thought it was my own coincidental reading habits. Perhaps, I reasoned, I was simply buying books with similar themes because of my own upbringing (abandoned, group homes, foster home) and felt a kinship with the characters. Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into the common misery of being a protagonist? Hard to say, really. So I decided to play hardball and went to the New York Times bestsellers list.

  • Rand al’Thor – (Wheel of Time) – Mother died soon after his birth, raised by stepfather and has a half-brother. A prophecy is involved.
  • Malcolm Bannister – (The Racketeer) – In prison, wife left him after his conviction, estranged son.

There were others but I couldn’t tell if their family life was as screwed up as the ones I already listed. Needless to say, though, that I’m surmising that misery sells. Dysfunctional families sell. But… why?

Seriously. Outside of the Honor Harrington series (which includes her “background YA stories” featuring her ancestor), can you name a book or series you’ve read lately where the protagonist came from a large, safe, functional family? A family that is, well, boring?

This brings me to fate. I will admit, I hate the term “Chosen One” when people describe the main character of a book. It pissed me off to no end that I actually started a series that tells it from the point of view of someone who was not the Chosen One but instead chose to be the one. I literally have to restrain myself whenever someone talks about fate, destiny, and some long-forgotten prophecy. It makes me feel like someone couldn’t figure it out, so they left it to prophecy. Harry Potter is a huge culprit (though not the only one, not by far).

But I buy the books anyway. I read them. Quite a few people read them, judging from the book sales. What is it about the human psychological function that makes us want to escape our (oftentimes very good) lives in order to read about something that is a horrible life instead (i.e., trading high school for Panem, for instance)? Why does it entertain us so to be so enthralled with other people’s miserable lives?

One thing I tend to guess is that it’s hope. Not us hoping that we’ll end up in that world (though to be fair, I often think I would like to live in a world like Narnia… but then I remember that, since I’m not a Pevensie, I’d probably just toil away for the White Witch or something…), but the hope that since our protagonist rose above their screwed up youth/life, we can achieve the same. I’m not sure if that’s correct, but it’s my strongest theory so far.

I don’t get it, though. We try to espouse publicly the wonders of a stable home environment, yet when people read things, damn near everything is dysfunctional. I know that dysfunction sells (I think I mentioned that earlier) and that stable families are apparently boring (if you believe sales numbers, which I kind of do). At the risk of pissing off a lot of people, part of me wonders if it’s just writer laziness?

No, no, put down your pitchforks and torches for a moment and let me explain!

Bringing your characters to life is hard. It really is. You know what they’re supposed to be like (since, after all, they’re muttering crazy crap in your head), but it’s hard to share this without boring the hell out of your reader. In the SF realm we call it “info dumping” and we try not to do it very often (except certain unnamed authors who have 65% tech, 25% character and 20% action). So you have a character in your head, trying to explain why he or she does one thing or another, and you think about how the public perceives certain things. So the author will cheat a little and rely on your supposition about what some characters’ backgrounds means to you. For example…

…a young girl abandoned by her father and is left with a drug-addled mother.

Quick, your first impression. Be honest. Was it that she’s probably independent, an attitude, struggled with school possibly, or more likely excels in school because… why? She has to fight for everything and is determined to succeed?

See how easy that was? One minor detail about a troubled life and your own brain draws the links to why the character is the way she is, creating excuses, creating a back story. It allows the author to do something without actually doing anything.

What do you think? What draws a person to fall into a story where the character’s family or life is dysfunctional? And why can’t a boringly large family be entertaining?

You know, excluding the sex stuff?

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6 responses to “A Curiously Random Theme

  1. MishaBurnett January 26, 2013 at 7:56 AM

    The closest that I can think of is Meg from “A Wrinkle In Time”–granted, her father is missing when the story opens, but that’s through no fault of his own and the story revolves around Meg going to rescue him.

    But characters from healthy, stable, two parent families… I’m drawing a blank.

  2. Barb Caffrey January 26, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    Yeah, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and associated books are one of the few out there with a functional family (more or less). Diane Duane’s “So You Want to be a Wizard” and follow-ons have an odd family situation, IIRC, but once it stabilizes it’s pretty good (kids live with an uncle or aunt? It’s been a while since I read that series.) Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, at least a few like “Hexwood,” have intact families with drama and stress, though she also has other families that aren’t intact . . . those are the three authors that came to mind right away in the SF&F world.

    Let’s see. Misty Lackey’s characters usually come from damaged backgrounds, though the “Last Herald-Mage” series about Vanyel showed him coming from a home with a parent who didn’t like gay men and a mother who didn’t care what Van’s sexuality was. (Eventually Van’s father accepted Van’s life, including Vanyel’s love for one special man, Bard Stefen.)

    Rosemary Edghill’s SF&F has some characters from intact families, though usually the families are still dysfunctional. (She’s like Diana Wynne Jones. She does a little bit of everything and can make the story work with just about any premise.)

    I know in my own work, my orphaned character Bruno starts off as an anti-hero. He’s certainly not destined to do anything as far as he knows. He gets sent to our Earth because the Elfy High Council is afraid of him, yes, but *he* does not know this for quite some time. Instead, he believes he is worth absolutely nothing. But he still wants to do his own thing, which is where many teens are.

    Anyway, Bruno later becomes a hero through his own choice, more or less. Sarah, if anyone (his love interest, and you’ve read the book so you know this) is the one destined to be a heroine. And she’s not exactly keen on destiny, either. (They both tend to make fun of such things as often as they can.)

    I know all of my stories thus far have characters who come from either dysfunctional families or where the other family members are deceased. (Of course, in the Elfyverse, the dead can still impact the living in a positive way — or possibly a negative one — so being dead doesn’t *necessarily* mean “absent.”) “Changing Faces,” the non-Elfyverse fantasy I’m still working on, has an orphaned girl and an adopted boy where his adoptive parents are missing, presumed dead.

    I do think there’s something in our collective consciousness that responds to such tales, though, because many of us feel isolated, alone, and completely misunderstood. And we may secretly wish to be able to affect the outcome in ways that aren’t possible in reality, so we write better outcomes in fantasy/SF (or if you’re writing straight-up romances, maybe you’re writing something you wish would happen but hasn’t? I don’t know.) in order to believe in something better.

    In such a fashion, even dystopian SF and dystopian fantasy can be uplifting, because usually Katniss, etc., figures out a way to win the day. (If not, we’d stop reading.)

    • warpcordova January 27, 2013 at 8:14 AM

      Wow, I’m bad with math.

      Uplifting is nice, but why do we read about how bad it is in the first place? Some of the biggest books out there right now are about people who thought they were something and discovered that they were an entirely different person. Is it the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome?

      • Barb Caffrey January 28, 2013 at 12:17 AM

        Jason, honestly, I don’t know. There are some really hot series (seria?) out there and they’re incredibly dystopic/dystopian. Just really difficult to read with some horrific scenes . . . I know the two books by Veronica Roth, “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” features a brave heroine and doesn’t have the menage a trois that so many of these books do (Gale v. Peeta in the Collins books, two different guys in Ally Condie’s “Matched” trilogy, and two different guys in Lauren Oliver’s trilogy) as she’s in love with one guy and knows her own mind and heart well enough that she’s not tempted by anyone else. Still, she loses both parents in “Divergent” and has to come to grips with the fact that her brother may be a traitor in “Insurgent.” And the way society has broken down so there are now five factions — and the faction you’re in determines your life choice, you only get a chance to choose once (at age 16) and that’s it for the rest of your life — is extremely difficult to deal with.

        I think right now the economy is depressing and many people are fed up. In the past, people turned to screwball comedies in movies and books to divert themselves, or whole different worlds (Westerns, maybe, or Gothic romances, or Regencies, which have been around for at least 100 years if not more) to keep their minds off it all. Now, people are into dystopian societies because they’ve broken down more than our current one has, and yet these people find ways to survive and turn their reality into better days (or such is the hope, anyway).

        Basically, we’re into reading about angst right now, for better or worse. (Not that every single last person does, and the bottom could fall out of this market at any point as it’s been ascendant for quite some time.) That’s why there are so many different books out there that are really downbeat, like “Cinder” and Roth’s two books or Lauren Oliver’s two or Suzanne Collins’ trilogy or Condie’s trilogy. (Much less a few other books where I can’t recall the names, but definitely recall how downbeat they were and are.)

      • warpcordova January 28, 2013 at 6:22 AM

        I think that has some to do with it. I also wonder why, when we’re kind of depressed as a world as-is, editors would be pushing depressing reads onto people.

      • Barb Caffrey January 28, 2013 at 11:58 PM

        I don’t know. You know that “Elfy” is not depressing. Your own books about Christian Cole are not depressing, either. Certainly, “Corruptor” isn’t depressing.

        I think the editors now are mostly in their late 20s/early 30s and are shellshocked. The world and the job market are not as advertised. They want a refund. So they buy dystopian fiction.

        (Or something like that.)

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