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The Dynamics of Time Travel in Fiction

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Back to the Future - Novel Conclusions Writing Blog - Literary Blog - Time Travel

Back to the Future Day via Google Images

Today is a red-letter date in the history of time travel stories – the day Marty and Doc went to the future!  In honor of Back to the Future Day, we are going to explore the basic dynamics of time travel in fiction.  What are the consequences for your characters of the possible rules of time travel?

Each fictional universe works with different time travel rules, but the basic rules fall into 3 categories:

  • Changeable Timeline
  • Resistant Timeline
  • Predetermined Timeline

Changeable

A changeable timeline gives the characters much more freedom – and much more ability to screw things up.  Examples of a changeable timeline include stories like Ken Grimwood’s Replay and, of course, the Back to the Future series.

Although the mechanics are different, both of these stories offer characters the chance to change the future.  In Replay, Jeff and Pamela play out their lives over and over and keep waking up after death at age 18 in 1963.  They make different choices in each lifetime to unravel a mystery they are trying to solve.  In Back to the Future, Marty and Doc are working to rectify their accidental changes to the timeline and change the future back to what it should have been.

Resistant

A resistant timeline, such as in Stephen King’s 11-22-63 or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, offers the author a very interesting framework for the plot.  11-22-63’s narrator Jake Epping, in an effort to change history, tells us again and again, “The past is obdurate.”  Stephen King uses the obdurate past as an antagonist.  Diana Gabaldon in Outlander, meanwhile, uses the resistant past as sometimes good (e.g. I can’t do too much harm) and sometimes bad (e.g. what if I accidentally prevent someone important to me from being born?).

Predetermined

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both provide great examples of a predetermined timeline.  A predetermined timeline sneaks up on our characters; they may know what is coming and have no way to change it.  Or perhaps they know they have to do something but must figure out how to do it.

In the Time Traveler’s Wife, part of the sneakiness of the plot lies in how sometimes Claire knows what’s coming and sometimes Henry does.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione only realize just in time what they need to do to save their friends – and they have to figure out on the spot how to do it.

Each of these approaches comes with its own positives and pitfalls.  Which is your favorite?  Which dynamics of time travel did I leave out?  What are other examples of great time travel stories?

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Make it Real: Building Diversity in Fiction

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Diversity - Character Diversity - Diversity in Fiction - Minority Main Characters in YA Fiction - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog - Christina Gerstle - Christi Gerstle

Colourful Army by Maistora via Flickr

Traveling over the holidays has gotten me thinking a lot about diversity.  Everywhere you go, the people are different and diverse and represent different parts of the country in a wide variety of ways.  This is especially obvious traveling through airports.  At LAX, everyone was in a hurry, and I even spotted an older woman wearing serious fur and heels.  At 7am.  In Houston, passengers moseyed rather than striding along with urgency.  In Florida, a significant chunk of stout older ladies with big earrings, East Coast accents, and too-tight leopard print clothing edged everyone else out of their way.

A female YA author* recently wrote a tumblr post about character diversity and how most YA MCs (main characters) are usually pretty, straight white girls without any physical impairments.  First of all, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about those girls (and I personally find it obnoxious when people say “cisgender” — just say straight, people, OMG.  It’s like saying Caucasian or African-American instead of white or black.  It’s snotty.).  However, I do think it’s important to include representations of more than one type when you’re writing.  In fact, as a white girl in Southern California, I find it a little twilight-zone-esque when there are only white people around.  Here in LA, I’m definitely in the minority, and I notice when there’s no diversity.  I was up in Yountville near Napa with family on Black Friday, and my mom said, “Isn’t it weird that there only seem to be white people here? I wonder why.”

When I was teaching, I didn’t have any white students at all, and I struggled to find good books with minority MCs.  Also, I refused to include books in my classroom that were pro one race over another.  People who exclude all races but their own are just as bad as the KKK (I’m looking at you, MEChA and Ta-Nehisi Coates).  Suffice it to say, we read a lot of Walter Dean Myers.

Despite the lack of minority characters in popular YA, I would posit that it’s our duty as modern writers to include them when possible and as modern readers to ask for them when possible.  Having different types of characters encourages young readers to open their minds, in addition to the fact that if every one of our characters were just copies of the same character over and over with different names (cough*Heinlein*cough), it would make our stories pretty flat.

There are many different types of diversity, not just skin color.  In Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, we find Nazis, Jews, Communists, and working class Germans all together in one book, creating conflict.  In the Harry Potter series, Rowling brings us “pure bloods” and “muggle-borns” to create an overarching conflict through the series.  Additionally, she brings in characters of different ethnicities (Dean Thomas, Parvati Patil, Cho Chang, etc.), and makes a point by having their ethnicities not matter a whit.  In the Hunger Games series, the characters represent a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds and use these backgrounds to work together against the Capitol, especially in Mockingjay.  You can also find minority MCs in House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Romiette and Julio by Sharon Draper, Flight by Sherman Alexie, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, among many others.

Which books have you read that represent diversity well?  Have you read any interesting blog posts/articles about character diversity?

*I can’t remember which author wrote this post, only that this post was linked on Cassandra Clare’s tumblr and may have been Holly Black, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, or Ally Carter.  Or some other female YA author.  I spent 45 minutes digging through Cassandra Clare’s tumblr trying to find it.  If you know which tumblr post I’m talking about, please link it in the comments.

Building Complex Characters

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Cain and Abel by Titian via Wikimedia Commons

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One of the best things about good stories is great characters.  In a memorable story, the main character shares the stage with a cast of other similarly complex characters.  We don’t need to have 20 super complex characters, unless you’re writing some kind of epic, but we should definitely have more than one, and almost definitely more than 2 or 3.  Side note/disclaimer: I don’t like stories about man vs. nature where it’s literally just one dude/dudette against the elements, a la Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Hatchet, etc.; those stories are great naptime inducers.

How do we create these complex characters?

  1. Each of your main ensemble characters should have their own character arc.  That means they have an objective or three.  This is even better if their objectives clash directly with the main character’s objectives – plot fireworks!  For example, in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Matilda’s little buddy Lavendar wants to be just as cool as the upper grade kids, and this character arc has some serious unintended consequences for Matilda.  When Matilda is falsely accused of being behind one of Lavendar’s pranks (a prank she set up to get in with the cool kids), the ensuing events are set in motion with no turning back.
  2. Be very strategic in your choice of details.  Although it’s very important to include details about our characters (this is something we really must do), a little goes a long way.  In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a telling detail about main character Jonas’s best friend Asher does double duty, not only revealing a bit about Asher, but contrasting it directly with Jonas:  “Jonas was careful about language, not like his friend, Asher, who talked too fast and mixed things up, scrambling words and phrases until they were barely recognizable and very funny.”  Jonas’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness are thrown into sharp relief when held up next to his sloppy, funny best friend.  (For more on detail, check out last week’s post about character tags).
  3. Dynamic situations.  Situations where characters are forced to reevaluate their stances or their past decisions – these are some great character-revealing situations.  Severus Snape, of Harry Potter fame, presents a fantastic example.  When he finds out that the woman he’s loved since childhood – Harry’s mother, Lily – is in danger, he becomes a double agent.  Even though he carries a deep dislike of Harry, carried over from his hatred of Harry’s father, he changes the course of many lives in his time as a double agent, Harry’s especially.
  4. Your plot should not be able to stay the same if you removed one of the characters.  The characters and plot ought to be so intertwined that you cannot remove a character without affecting the plot.  Can you imagine Top Gun without Maverick?  Not so much.  If you can remove a character without affecting the plot, that character probably didn’t belong in the first place.

How else can we create complex characters?  Who are some of your favorite complex characters?

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Character Tags in Fiction and Why They’re Fantastic

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Sean Bean as Ned Stark via Google Images

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In most memorable books you read, the characters hold distinct places in your memory.  Why is this?  Outside of the overarching plot, what makes characters stand out in our minds?  Character tags help with this immensely.  A character tag is a physical way of being that the character comes back to time and again.  Character tags could be:

  • A common phrase or verbal tic
  • A way of speaking
  • An accent or dialect
  • A physical mannerism
  • A way of carrying themselves
  • A scent
  • A recurring behavior
  • Etc.

For example, in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 6-year-old Charles Wallace speaks incredibly clearly and calmly and in complete sentences, much more so than the average person.  As a result, even when dialogue tags are scarce, we know when Charles Wallace is speaking.  This also works well because of the contrast it provides to the other main characters.  He works as a foil for his impulsive, belligerent sister Meg.  L’Engle weaves these characters masterfully in a way that helps us relate to both of them.

In Rachel Ward’s Numbers, teenage Spider presents a fantastic example.  Spider moves constantly, restless, and this comes up again and again.  Our narrator Jem describes him as

“He’s big, Spider, tall.  One of those people who stand too close to you, doesn’t know when to back off.  Suppose that’s why he gets into fights at school.  He’s in your face all the time, you can smell him.  Even if you twist and turn away, he’s still there – doesn’t read the signs at all, never takes the hint.”

This becomes a character tag rather than just a description because we see Spider doing these things over and over again.  These mannerisms embed themselves into the story.  You also definitely want to walk the thin line of not using the character tags too much, or you can fall into the accidental comedy category.

Character tags become especially important in ensemble series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.  In the Harry Potter series, even though Ernie MacMillan only pops up a couple times in each book, we know who he is because of the proud way he carries himself.  It’s his primary character tag.  In the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones), keeping the crazy amount of characters straight is only possible because George RR Martin can throw down character tags like no one’s business.  Ned Stark (not to mention many of the other Northerners in the series) is always saying “Winter is coming” like a mantra.  If someone utters that phrase, we know we’re talking to Stark or one of his people.

What do these character tags do?

  • They make characters more memorable and distinguishable (making the story more interesting).
  • They tell us something about the character.
  • They make the character more real for the reader.
  • They help create tension between characters.

What are good character tags you’ve run across?  What do you think character tags do for a story?

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Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

Facebook’s Most Read Books of 2012… and the Giveaway Winner!

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I may be a bit behind the curve on this super cool infographic (perhaps you saw this around the new year), but it was so interesting that I just had to share it.  In the past, I shared a list of the most read books in the past 50 years; below, you’ll find something slightly narrower in scope but also fascinating nonetheless, Facebook’s Most Read Books of 2012.

Most Read Books 2012 infographic - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing blog - Christi Gerstle

Facebook’s 2012 Most Read Books of the Year via facebookstories.com

I was most surprised by The Great Gatsby’s appearance on the list.  Although the source of this infographic doesn’t philosophize on why some books might be on the list, I wonder if Gatsby made it due to the publicity for the upcoming movie, English teachers hitting it a little more than normal, or just that the book is one of those that sticks.

Giveaway Winner

DRUMROLL…

Random.org gave me the gorgeously round number 575.  This makes Tracy Cembor, with the number 500, the winner of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess!  Congrats Tracy!  You can check out her blog over at tracycembor.com.

Should I Really Read the Classics? AND a Giveaway

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MacBeth apparition - why read classic literature - enjoying the classics - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

MacBeth: the Apparition of the Kings by Théodore Chassériau, via Wikimedia Commons

There comes a certain point in your time as a reader, at least for more serious readers, when you decide you should read some classics.  When I was a kid, I wanted to read the classics because it was the smart thing to do (and smart was cool, in my lexicon as a middle schooler – although that lexicon also involved lots of ugly baggy 90s shirts, but whatevs…).  Other people read the classics because they’re curious or because someone recommended a certain book or even just because they have to for school.

When I was at the book signing week before last, I was talking with a couple teenage girls there, and they said they hadn’t really read any classics, that they really preferred girly YA books.  And there’s nothing wrong with girly YA books!  I love me some adventurous, booty-kicking YA heroines.  So why read classics?

For a few reasons:

  1. You can more fully understand the fun books you’ve been reading this whole time.  How is this?  Well, most authors are very well-read and tend to incorporate that into their work.  Take JK Rowling as an example – the Harry Potter series is filled with allusions to works like the Iliad, MacBeth, the Canterbury Tales, and the Bible.  The characters even have a discussion about the meaning of I Corinthians 15:26 (“And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”), among other things, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Other examples of this are the frequent allusions to Tennyson’s poetry and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series and Suzanne Collins’s abundance of allusions to the Roman Empire and to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in The Hunger Games trilogy.
  2. It makes you part of a unique group. Not everybody reads classics.  You get to be part of the “in jokes,” so to speak, in the literature and book publishing arena whenever people allude to the books you’ve read (and no worries – no one has ready every classical book out there).
  3. It gives you a broader perspective of the world in general.  When could a broader perspective ever be truly bad?  Broader perspectives lead to things like the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.
  4. It’s fun.  Some classics are just as fun to read as books written in the current era.  See below for a short list.

Easier Classics
A small sampling:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – basically a romantic comedy.  Who doesn’t love Elizabeth and Darcy?
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – love in wartime.  It’s a little sad, though, so advance warning.
  • Candide by Voltaire – a French comedy with adventure, love, pirates, and Turkish chain gangs.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oliver Wilde – a mistaken identity comedy.
  • The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – a hilariously gossipy comedy, with character names like Lady Sneerwell, Sir Backbite, and Snake.
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare – get the edition that has explanations on every other page, makes all those Shakespearean insults more understandable (and therefore funnier).
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – dystopian fiction from long before The Hunger Games.

NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY

As promised last week…  If you’d like to be entered into the giveaway for a signed copy of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, here’s what you do:

  1. You need to already live in the US or Canada (sorry, international folks, postage is expensive for huge hardcovers).
  2. Comment below with a number between 1 and 1000 by next Sunday, April 7, at 9 pm Pacific Time.
  3. In your comment, if you like, answer this question: what’s your favorite classic book and why?  And if you don’t have a favorite classic, what’s one you’d like to read?

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