The Sappy (Male) Hero

As I mentioned last week, I am work-shopping a magical realism novel to my fearless writer’s group. I was worried how they would react to the more graphic violence and the explicit sex that is a far cry from the YA epic fantasy novels I have shared over the past few years.

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Song of Battlefield by Norry at Epilogue

But this week, a couple of the participants surprised me. They suggested that perhaps my protagonist is too in touch with his feelings, that he is too sappy in his budding relationship with the sassy, but attractive Brynn.

The protagonist, the Kingfisher, has experienced many traumas, including the destruction of his country and family, for which he feels responsible. This looming sense of failure follows him as he begins to tread a similar path in Cassia, while searching for his sons, who have been sold into slavery.

“How is it,” one of my readers asked, “that one minute he can be ruthless and violent with his enemies, and then so tender with those close to him?”

“How can he,” another asks, “be so traumatized, yet so self-aware?”

I am puzzled by this, not least because if the Kingfisher was female, I suspect we would not be asking such questions. It feels (on a totally different level of awareness, I know) similar to hearing political pundits wonder whether Hillary Clinton can function both as President of the United States and as a grandmother. No one asks this of her male predecessors. Apparently one can be a President and grandfather, though judging by some of their performances, I am left wondering…

I work hard to present my characters as multi-dimensional. This summer, I began the indoctrination of my family (not the protesting youngest) with Game of Thrones. Mrs. Bloggs (she should actually be addressed now as Dr. Bloggs) pointed out that there is only one (royal) character in George R.R. Martin’s thousand-character cast, who it is easy to thoroughly hate. No spoilers, however!

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I have written previously of my admiration of Martin’s ability to make us care for his characters while blatantly exposing us to their flaws.

Most people in real life are both good and bad. It is the endless struggle wherein we strive to make ourselves better human beings (or not), and we are, by and large, inconsistent. There are days when we are heroes and others we are embarrassed about.

Fantasy is all about showing the reality of human behavior in a different concept, fiction allowing us to bend the story to suit our plot. Nonetheless, fantasy (and most genres of fiction) stand and fall on the reader’s ability to connect: with the plot, characters, and conflict.

I lived for two decades in a country where all eighteen year olds are conscripted and many serve in combat units and see real action. It never ceased to surprise me to discover that a gentle father was an officer in an elite unit, or that a mild-mannered man was a sniper, holding life and death between his sights. I see it in other people’s expressions when I talk of my own experiences.

Perhaps the issue that my readers are experiencing with the Kingfisher, is that we are hearing him speak and think in the first person. We are literally inside his head and this might be why so many feel his introspection is so jarring. We feel his pain, his rage, his love, and his conflict.

Most men can hide their fears in the privacy of their bedrooms, their cars, or their empty bottles. We don’t need, or are expected, to express our inner emotions and vulnerabilities, in public. And if we do, perhaps we are scorned for being sappy and in touch with ourselves.

Perhaps this is why we need fiction: to show the human side of half the world’s population, when the world is not ready to see it in reality.

Sacrificial Flame – Update on Book Launch

The review copy arrived this week. Unfortunately there was an error of placement of the book cover and there is at least another week’s delay. I understand why Tourmaline Books we so vague with their: out this summer. I just hope they aren’t aware that in Berkeley our summers can go on until the end of October! 

Sacrificial Flame Cover Hi Res

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

 

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Why Do Adults Gravitate To Young Adult Fiction?

I believe that more adults are reading the epic fantasy Wycaan Master series than young adults. I know there is a fair proportion of teenagers and even pre-teens reading, but judging by the emails, blog comments, and twitter responses, it is predominately adults. This is all despite the books being written for and with my children, which I describe here. It begs the question why are adults drawn to Young Adult (YA) books?

imgresI found this article by Kelly Johnson. In her post, she debunks the following statements (her words):

1. Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence 

2. YA books are escapist since you don’t have to look beneath the surface of them. They are easier to grasp.

3. Adults read YA because they aren’t able to read past a middle school or high school level because adults are getting dumber and dumber.

4. YA books are about hopefulness. Their problems aren’t really problems and they can be fixed. Also there’s always a happy ending, so it’s satisfying and fulfilling to adults. The characters are likable. 

5. Fill in the blank with your own justification here. Some examples may include: YA is all about first experiences; YA is nostalgia for adults; YA is cheaper than adult books and therefore more appealing to the wallet; and so forth.”

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I enjoyed Ms. Johnson’s fiery responses to these statements, but I felt let down when she finished with: “The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to. That’s it. That’s their reason. Adults read YA books because they as adults choose to do so.

I am disappointed. None of these reasons explain why an adult, working, raising a family, involved in a community, volunteering, following a sports team etc. would be so moved to take a few precious hours each day to sit and read, and then often reach out and engage with the author, fellow readers, come back to buy more books, and enter deep discussions online and at the pub.

Fiction is all about the plot, the characters, and the environment. It is true for John Grisham and Stephen King, and it is true for Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, and R.A. Salvatore.

When I read a John Grisham book, I am transported to Mississippi, to another time, and when I close the book at the end of a chapter, I worry about his characters and their choices. It is no different to George R.R. Martin who may kill off a few popular characters in the next chapter if he had a bad day.

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The issue, I think, is how we perceive YA. A young adult book means there is no sex, less violence and no profanity. There are certain boundaries not crossed if we want our youth to read them. But that is all it is. There is nothing here to prevent an adult from enjoying the book, unless you assume we are all sex-starved, violent, expletive-charged individuals, which would be sad, especially if this is how Hollywood and the mass media perceive us.

I am taking a few months break from the fourth Wycaan Master book to write an adult fantasy book.

I have not felt a need to raise the richness of language.

I have not made the characters deeper and more compelling.

I have not sought a more complex plot.

I have not deepened or diluted my world-building.

There are, to be honest, issues dealt with here that may be too dark to share with youth. I share a lot with my teen son, but would hesitate to share certain passages here. Characters deal with fears and obstacles that most of us who have children might not want them to read. There is sex and more graphic violence than in the Wycaan Master series, but that might yet get dialed down.

So what does make adults gravitate to YA novels? The problem is not with the answer. The question is simply wrong.

People read a story because it has a good plot, characters that the reader can bond with, a world that stimulates the imagination. This is the same for adults as it is for YA. YA is written within certain criteria in order to make them a safe space of teens. It certainly does not mean dumbing down or becoming predictable.

The discerning reader will be drawn to a book in their chosen genre simply because it is good: plot, characters, environment and strong writing.

A good novel is a good novel is a good novel…

So this seems like a good time to thank all of you who bought Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 and any of my other novels. I read every blog comment, every tweet, every priceless review on Amazon.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Have a great week.

elfwriter

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+ here.