characters, fiction, writing

Curiosity Killed The Cat …

… but it saves the character.

I’ve been getting bored with doing nothing but research, research, research, and very little writing. So the other day, just for sheer fun, I started a story set in 1920s England – an adventure-fantasy: Dorothy L Sayers meets CS Lewis, so to speak.

Or at least, that was my intention. About 6,000 words in, I noticed a deadly flaw.

My heroine was boring.

She was the eldest of three sisters (I like writing fic where the eldest is the heroine – it goes against traditional convention so well). She was the responsible one against her sisters’ frivolity. She was plain compared to their beauty and charm. She was shy in society. She was ….


If my main character was putting even me to sleep, in a story that was supposed to be frothily fun, I had a problem.

So, like any sensible person, I took the matter to Facebook (and to Twitter, but nobody responded there – my FB friends are all much better, apparently, at answering writerly dilemmas), and got some helpful tips.

I mulled them all over, looked at their examples of good heroes/heroines who were responsible yet still interesting, and came up with a definite character trait to redeem this poor girl.


To get a feel for the era and tone, I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter books (such terribly hard research, I know). Lord Peter is an amazingly complex character, but one trait that really makes him stand out from the crowd is his imagination and curiosity. Sayers describes his curiosity as all-emcompassing, the kind that drives him to find out where his drains lead to and unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors.

My dad mentioned Brother Cadfael as another main character who is moral and responsible, but with an unquenchable curiosity that leads him, even as a monk, to poke his nose into everything that comes along.

Then I got thinking about others: Kate Talgarth, from the Cecy & Kate books, who might be something of a drip if it weren’t for her curiosity and wit. Jane Stuart, of Jane of Lantern Hill, who really starts to shine when she moves to PEI and is able to indulge her curiosity for life. Mrs Pollifax, by Dorothy Gilman, who joins the CIA as an elderly widow because she is bored, and whose interest in people gives her new zest for life. Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who along with her sister Jane is the only responsible person in her entire family, including her parents, but who is also endlessly curious about people and life. Lucian, one of my favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s heroes, starts out his book by nearly losing his head due to an deadly combination of responsibility and curiosity.

I could continue, but I’ll spare you. I’m sure you’ve picked up the gist of it by now. Curiosity is both a virtue and a flaw for a character. Most human beings suffer from it to one degree or another.

I think I have a tendency, in order to keep my characters from becoming impossibly perfect and likable, to make them too drab. It’s also entirely possible that as I have always been fairly responsible, and hence always labeled “boring” (or the far worse “Goody-Two-Shoes”), that my own life experiences are bleeding into my writing. Let’s face, life as a stay-at-home mom to two littles brings with it plenty of need for responsibility, and not much outlet for being fun or exciting.

So this was a good reminder for me personally as well as authorially, that being responsible does not automatically equate being dull. A healthy dose of curiosity (with a sprinkling of wit and sense of fun) goes a long way toward combatting being boring.

What are some of your tricks to make a dull character start to shine? Are you a curious person? Do you think responsible is always the same as boring, in real life or in literature?

characters, families, heroines

Jo March and Sundries

This was going to be a post on Jo and Laurie, and why I don’t think they would have been a good couple, but I’ve been ranting about Amy various places lately, and realized that this post needed to mostly be about Jo, with everyone else tossed in as they relate to her.

First of all:

Even though Josephine “Jo” March did not make it to my list of favorite literary heroines, she only missed it by a hair, and only because I already had twelve and couldn’t justify making it any longer. And also because Louisa May Alcott’s moralizing-on-the-brink-of-preachiness style of writing has such a tendency to get under my skin that my irritation with her can bleed into my feelings toward Jo.

But Jo is still an old friend, and someone I admire. Her growth through “Little Women,” and then as she is seen in “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys,” is both realistic and beautiful – she becomes a gracious and responsible woman without losing any of her strength, her independence, or her individuality. Watching her learn, with the help of her mother, how to control her temper has always been a favorite theme of mine throughout the first book. Watching her as a mother to her two boys, and pseudo-mother to a whole host of other children in the later books, is almost as delightful. Her struggles to accept Beth’s mortality, and the strength that she lends her family during that time; her fierce rebellion against growing up before deciding to turn it to her advantage; her hatred of society’s meaningless conventions … she is a dear, our Jo.

And, of course, her friendship with Laurie. O, that controversial topic. Let me state my position right off the bat:

I do not think Jo and Laurie should have been married.

There. I said it.

Now, hold off on the pitchforks for just a moment and let me explain (then you can all come charging at me again, if you like).

I don’t think Laurie ever really respected Jo enough as a person. He didn’t take her seriously. He was in love with her, that much is true, but emotion alone is not enough to build a strong and lasting relationship. As Jo herself said, he would have resented her writing after a while, because it took her away from him. He would have been embarrassed by her oddities and how awkward she was in society – or worse, he would have been amused by her, and treated her like an exotic possession, to be brought out to startle polite company.

And Jo didn’t take Laurie seriously, either. She never would have believed he truly meant anything he set out to do, and would have treated him with a calm condescension that would have infuriated and deflated his ambitions. She would have sensed that he relied on her as his conscience, and would have resented that. She would try to fit into what she thought he wanted her to be, and hated every minute of it, and ended by hating him.

At least, that’s how I see it. They were the best of friends, but not all best friends should marry. I suppose it made more sense to me as a kid, because, you see, my best friend was a boy, and almost everyone around us assumed that we would fall in love as we got older and get married. We knew, though, that such a relationship would never, ever work, that our temperaments were too alike in crucial areas and too different in others, that the very things that made our friendship so strong would destroy us if we were ever so stupid to fall in love.

And life proved us right, as we are both happily married to other people now, and still very good friends. Ethan was, in fact, the one that introduced me to my husband, and he was best man at our wedding.

Having said all that, I still cannot forgive Amy for marrying Laurie. Or for existing, for that matter. I have never been able to get over the way she destroyed Jo’s book. And I know she almost drowned/froze in the river afterward, but all that did was turn it around so that Jo was the bad guy and Amy the suffering victim. If she had killed a living pet of Jo’s nobody would have let her off so easily. Jo’s book was as alive to her and important as any pet could have been!

And then Europe. If she really was a good person by that point, instead of simply having all the outward appearances of goodness, she could have said to Aunt Carrol, “Thank you so much for your offer, Aunt, but Aunt March did always promise to take Jo and it isn’t right that she should lose this chance just because she was having a bad day due to me forcing her to do something she didn’t like and isn’t good at; please take her with you instead of me.” I hate how she was portrayed so sweet and good, and yet took everything Jo ought to have had, and calmly accepted it as her due. She knew that Laurie loved Jo, and had no way of knowing that Jo didn’t love him, but she fell for him anyway, never once thinking of her sister bearing all the family burdens at home. Selfish beast!

I’ve also never really liked Professor Bhaer, though I can accept him better in the latter two books. Still, though, I get the impression that LMA tossed him in because she knew her readers would never allow her to leave Jo unmarried. Not that I wanted Jo to be alone and single all her days (UNLESS SHE WANTED TO), but the professor was just … bland. There was nothing to him. Jo should have married someone strong, to match her, but gentle where she was sharp, and calm where she was excitable, and vice-versa. Someone with a rich sense of humor and a good view of the world. Someone – and this is very important – practical and fun, who could help her regain some of the spirit she lost during those hard years nursing Beth and after Beth died (while Amy was off in Europe stealing Laurie). Someone who viewed life as an adventure, not a philosophical treatise. Basically, she married her father, and I never liked Mr. March.

Poor Jo. She got cheated by LMA in so many ways. I can understand why so many people wanted her to marry Laurie, because of how gypped she was of a proper happy ending, but I still veer away there. Not Laurie, not a character LMA ever wrote (perhaps because she never met a man like that), but someone, somewhere, had to be a match for our beloved Jo.

And maybe he would have been able to squelch Amy, as nobody else was ever able to do!

What are your thoughts on the Jo-Laurie relationship? Did you like Professor Bhaer? Is boiling in oil too kind for Amy?

Books, influences, reading list

Two Giants

I’ve been re-reading the Redwall series ever since Brian Jacques’ death. Thankfully, I own all of them but the most recent, so the biggest challenge in reading them has come from trying to remember the original published order instead of the chronological order I had them in on my shelves. Thank goodness for internet resources!

With the passing of Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve decided to intersperse the Redwall books (and the Flying Dutchman books, which I also own) with some of hers. I was going to start re-reading the Chrestomanci books, but I don’t own any of those, and somebody else at our library must have had the same idea, for the first two were checked out today when I looked. As was Howl’s Moving Castle, which was my second choice.

So I’m reading Enchanted Glass right now, and I have the collection of short stories Unexpected Magic to read as well. It’ll do until I can get my hands on the Chrestomanci books.

I came to Jones late – not until last year or the year before as a matter of fact. I’m not sure how I missed her as a kid – with my affection for Lloyd Alexander, E Nesbit, and others of like ilk, she would have been right up my alley.

Be that as it may, I have thoroughly enjoyed her books ever since I discovered them. Sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my head around what’s happening, and often the endings leave me feeling vaguely confused (or, in the case of Fire and Hemlock, completely and totally confused, and having to re-read the ending several times over to make any sense of it). But I like that. It’s not the same frustration I feel when I read Robin McKinley, and the first half is thrilling, I get bogged down in the second, and by the end I am so in the dark I barely remember the story I’m reading at all (though oddly enough I keep going back to McKinley, so there must be something compelling about that sort of writing, too).

I like having to think while I read. I like the sense of satisfaction when I’ve figured out the hidden twist (I was so very tickled when reading The Game because I got it before All Was Revealed); and I like, sometimes, knowing that the writer completely pulled the wool over my eyes.

The Redwall books are my comfort books. Not only have I read them a million times, they all follow the same pattern. I know exactly what is going to happen in each one, and reading them gives me a comforting sense that everything is right with the world, and whatever isn’t will work out eventually.

I’m so very, very sad that these two marvelous writers had to die at all, especially so close to each other, but I think that reading their books intertwined with each other is actually going to be very good, and very helpful for me as a writer, because it will be me a much clearer sense of their very different styles, and what each style accomplishes, and what I need to do in order to achieve a certain atmosphere for my books.

And hopefully in studying their styles I will start to break myself of my habit of over-using adjectives – something I didn’t even realize I did until I was working on the last few chapters of my LMM fanfic the other day, and discovered that I peppered it with adjectives all over the place. Not too bad for LMM fic, since she was also adjective-happy, but not a habit I want to indulge in for my own writings!

Are you familiar with Jacques and Wynne Jones? What do their books do for you? What are your “comfort” books, and what are your “mind-stretching” books? Which do you prefer in the Redwall series, hares or otters? And finally, what are some of your bad writing habits that you have a hard time shaking?

Books, families, favorites, fiction

Favorite Literary Families

The Blythes (Meredith children) (LM Montgomery):

These were the very first families to come to mind when it came to best literary families. Anne and Gilbert are completely impossible always-loving, always-patient, always-kind, -understanding, -wise, -funny, etc, etc, parents. Of course, maybe that’s not impossible when you have a Susan Baker to do all your dirty work – the disciplining, the maintaining the household, the practical day-to-day details. Heck, I want a Susan Baker! Maybe then I can finally be the fun mom I’ve always wanted to be.

Be that as it may, Gilbert and Anne are awesome parents, and the children are just as winsome and lovable as their parents. I confess to a special fondness for Shirley, the poor unmentioned child through the latter books, who merits only a few sentences in Rainbow Valley, and one or two lines in Rilla of Ingleside.

The Merediths are not so lucky as the Blythe children – in Rainbow Valley their mother is dead and their father is neglectful. Things have looked up for them in Rilla, but through it all they have forged a funny, kind, loving friendship between themselves that is charming. Whenever I think of great sibling friendships, I think of these two families first.

The Seven-Day Magic families (Edward Eager):

I enjoy all of Eager’s families, but these two sets of siblings (and their families) especially touch me. John and Susan and their eccentric Grannie (who is AWESOME, by the way), and Barnaby, Abbie, and Fredericka with their funny and warm parents. I like that their parents/guardians are neither stupid nor unkind nor dead/otherwise absent, and that much of the magic revolves around them. Grannie gets her own adventure, with the children coming along but very definitely playing a side part; and Abbie’s entire wish has to do with her father. Very, very fun families.

The Melendys (Gone-Away Lake cousins) (Elizabeth Enright):

After listing Rush and Randy among my favorite heroes/heroines, you didn’t think I’d leave the rest of the family out, did you? The Melendys are such a delightful family – they bicker, make up, support each other, tease each other, and above all, enjoy each other’s company – even Father and Cuffy. And when a new member of the family joins them in “Then There Were Five,” it just gets even better.

As for the Gone-Away cousins … Julian and Portia always reminded me of my cousin Zachary and me. We were inseparable as kids, getting into trouble and out of it, always finding adventures everywhere we went, even occasionally including the younger ones in our mischief. I love finding literary relationships that mirror those in my own life! Alas, Zach and I never discovered anything so wonderful as Gone-Away Lake and Aunt Minnehaha and Uncle Pin, but we had some pretty marvelous adventures of our own.

The Stanton family (Susan Cooper):

My dad is one of eight children, and reading about Will’s large, loving, normal family always reminded me of Dad and my aunts and uncles. I especially appreciate how each of them has their own distinct personality, from artistic Max to motherly Barbara to vain Mary – and especially, of course, the musical genius Paul, among the others. The friendship between Stephen and Will, eldest and youngest, is beautiful, and the poignancy as it changes when Will comes more fully into his own as an Old One makes me catch my breath every time.

The Wimsey family (Dorothy L Sayers):

We don’t actually see much of the Wimseys after marriage and children, but what we do is delightful. The views on parenting and individuality in children expressed in the short story Tallboys has shaped much of my own views – and this only in a few lines! But that is part of Sayers’ genius, that she wraps truths up in such simple phrases and presents it so clearly that one doesn’t need more words than a few (something I obviously have yet to attain, given the length of these posts). And the relationship between Lord Peter and his wife (working very hard here not to spoil the outcome of the series for those who haven’t read it yet by giving away her name) is just perfect.

The Beresfords (Agatha Christie):

The marriage between Tommy and Tuppence was always described as a “joint venture,” and the way that they shared in everything, from government work to parenting to running a detective agency, has always charmed me. Carl and I have taken occasionally to describing our marriage as a “joint venture” (okay, that’s how I describe it, but he always agrees), and we too try to share in everything as an equal team – each with our own strengths, but always working together.

The Pevensies (CS Lewis):

Others have described the friendship between the Four far better than I could – if you really want to see why I love them so much, go read Andi Horton’s Valley Verdant or Kingdoms Come … or any of her works, really. I will content myself with saying that they each have a very special bond with each other, and it is precious to see.

The Rays (Willards) (Maud Hart Lovelace):

The Rays, with the exception of Margaret (since we had only two sisters), always reminded me of what my family might have been like had we lived back in that era and been just a little bit wealthier. Julia and Betsy bicker as children and grow up to be the firmest of friends. Their parents love them and guide them but also trust them to make their own decisions and own mistakes, and are always there to help them pick up the pieces and move along. Mr. Ray even allows the girls to join a different church when they are able to tell him why, telling them he is prouder of them for thinking it through and wanting to be part of a church than he is sad that they want to leave the church they grew up attending. In that same scene, he gives them one of the best pieces of parental advice ever: “You might as well learn right now, you two, that the poorest guide you can have in life is what people will say.”

As for the Willards, as seen in “Betsy’s Wedding,” they are just fun and real, and I love, love, love reading about Betsy’s trials and triumphs as a young bride!

The Marches (Bhaers) (Louisa May Alcott):

There are many things people could criticize Mr. and Mrs. March for in their parenting, but they always loved their children unconditionally and did their best to raise them according to their principles. I have always appreciated Marmee’s work with Jo in learning self-control. I do not like how they always coddled Amy – but then I’ve never been able to forgive Amy for destroying Jo’s book AND for getting to go to Europe just because Jo was having one bad day, so I would have liked to see her thoroughly squelched by her parents once or twice throughout the book. Ahem.

As for the Bhaers, the love they showered on even the most unlovable of children through “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys” is a lovely example of unconditional love. And the fact that they go about life in their own way, regardless of what society thought, is also delightful. The brotherly love between Teddy and Rob is so sweet, too.

The Fairchilds (Tuttle cousins) (Rebecca Caudill):

Not many people, I find, are familiar with the delightful books about the Fairchilds, or “Saturday Cousins,” which introduces us to the Tuttles. And it really is a shame, because both families are charming. Quaint, of course, hearkening back to that “simpler era” so many nostalgically yearn toward, but with everything that still makes a good family today – loyalty, friendship, love, trust, and guidance.

That same thread, in fact, weaves through all of the families on my list here. The same traits that my family always strove toward, and that I now strive to accomplish with my own family. In many ways, I look toward parts of these families for guidance in my own journey through these difficult waters of raising children. I am so thankful that literature, through heroes, heroines, and families, has given us all something to look up to, and something to strive for.

I may never be an Eilonwy, or a mother like Anne Blythe, or a brilliant and sensitive detective like Lord Peter, but they all can provide me with guideposts along my own journey. And really, what more can we ask of these fictional friends?

And the end of my “Favorite Literary …” series (unless you all can think of another list of “favorites” I ought to write)! Did your favorite literary family make it to my list? Who would you have added? Who would you have left off? Does anyone in the entire world actually like Amy March?