Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
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 hes doing all the time. If
a character is in control, he is in no danger, and readers arent 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, its not easy being green, and its that
difficulty that makes the story interesting.
This is not to say that your character cant 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, lets say your main character is the
worlds greatest swordswoman. She
is cool, calculating, and brilliant. Place
her in a fight against three burly thugs and you can be fairly sure that shes
going to come out on top; there is no suspense or drama to captivate the reader.
However, lets 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 Bulls
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 Gaimans Neverwhere,
Richards 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 Richards 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
Richards. 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
As an example, consider the classic example of
fantasy, Tolkiens 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 its fairly obvious that I
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
Its not easy being green -- but thats what makes
it so much fun.