Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

It’s Not Easy Being Green

By Sarah Jane Elliott

2001, Sarah Jane Elliott 

Read enough Fantasy, and it begins to seem like there is an overabundance of teenagers populating the various fantastic worlds.  Adults may exist in these worlds, but the book itself is often ruled by a teenager.  So why do so many authors seem to have an aversion to writing from an adult perspective?

There are several reasons why teenagers make handy main characters.  Authors who plan on a long chronology in their series are often forced to start with a teenager in order to accommodate everything that character is going to accomplish before he or she gets too old to do it.  Others, who model their society after a Medieval European one, choose teenagers because, due to the short life expectancy of the people, the characters begin their adult lives as teenagers.  However, the teenager is a convenient main character for another important reason:  the teenager is, most often, a novice.  He or she is still innocent in the ways of their world. 

However, youth is not necessary for a convincing main character.  It is the “green” aspect of the character that is appealing to the reader.  Nothing causes a story to stagnate faster than a character who knows exactly what he’s doing all the time.  If a character is in control, he is in no danger, and readers aren’t concerned for him.  However, if a character is thrust into a new and dangerous situation, with no idea how to cope with it, he draws the reader in with him.  In the words of the immortal frog, it’s not easy being green, and it’s that difficulty that makes the story interesting.

This is not to say that your character can’t be an expert in something.  It is quite possible to have a green character who is neither youthful nor innocent, provided he or she is new to the situation at hand.  For instance, let’s say your main character is the world’s greatest swordswoman.  She is cool, calculating, and brilliant.  Place her in a fight against three burly thugs and you can be fairly sure that she’s going to come out on top; there is no suspense or drama to captivate the reader.  However, let’s say that she gets a new assignment from the master of the Fighters’ guild.  She is to protect the two-year old son of a very important Lord, but she has to do it undercover.  Now the calm, emotionless swordswoman has been thrust into the role of a mother -- a role for which her previous training never prepared her.  Suddenly she has no idea what to do, and the story becomes interesting.

A great example of this kind of story is Emma Bull’s “War for the Oaks.”  The heroine, Eddi McCandry, is neither a teenager nor innocent.  She is an adult woman fully capable of caring for herself in modern Minneapolis, so Bull throws her into the middle of a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts.   Eddi is suddenly in completely over her head, and must use the skills she already has at her disposal to discover the power within her.

This is a wonderful illustration of why a green character is so engaging; if the character is a novice when the story begins, she has a chance to grow as the story progresses.  A character that adapts, changes, and matures is far deeper than one who remains static, and the reader will be better able to connect with her.  In Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” Richard’s life is so mind-numbingly normal that everyone can sympathize with him.   Thus, when Gaiman thrusts him into the dark and twisted world of London Underground, it is easy to share Richard’s fear and confusion.  It also lets the reader grow and change with Richard, so that by the time the story ends, the reader has changed his expectation of the story's outcome to match Richard’s.  This kind of deep connection is what makes a book sell, and is easy to achieve when the reader can see himself in the main character from page one.

By making the character green, you put the character on the same level as most of your readers.  This comes in handy when you have a lot of worldbuilding to convey -- which is perhaps why fantasy stories in particular, where everything has been invented for the story, do so well with novice main characters.  An expert would already know everything, and the author would have to rely on scads of infodumps and “as you know, Bobs” to get the point across, which cause the narrative to grind to a halt.  By having a character who is new to the situation, the author is presented with a perfect way to convey information without resorting to ponderous exposition.  The reader learns about the world with the character, which not only makes the exposition seem more natural, it also further helps the reader to connect with the character.

As an example, consider the classic example of fantasy, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”  Tolkien had an enormous amount of information and history to convey, so he made the Hobbits innocents in Middle Earth.  By passing information on to them, and consequently to the readers, he avoided getting mired in exposition and created a story that has remained popular with every new set of readers to discover it.

However, the writer must also avoid the pitfall this creates -- do not use a green character as an excuse to show off what you, as the writer, have created.  Such scenes do nothing to advance plot or develop character, and risk disrupting the rapport the reader is establishing with the main character.  A good way to turn a reader off is to write a scene like the following:

“…so that, my young pupil, is the four hour explanation of why the xylquax hate our people so much.”

“Ah yes, that was very educational.  Tell me more about the xylquax, Master.”

“Very well.  The xylquax have a breeding cycle of three quarads.”

“What is a quarad master?”

“A quarad is roughly equal to seven xiptargs.  The xylquax mate every quarad and give birth to litters of twelve, six of which are usually eaten…”

I could go on, but I hope it’s fairly obvious that I shouldn’t. 

The key to good storytelling is to give the character a challenge.  Perfect characters that emerge unscathed from every difficulty they encounter are boring; it is the new, the challenging, the unexpected that engages the reader.   Wise and experienced as a character may be, it is the element of “greenness,” the inability to cope with a situation, that makes the story worth telling. 

It’s not easy being green -- but that’s what makes it so much fun.