Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Women, Men, Families and Fiction
By Kay House & Justin Stanchfield
2002, Kay House and Justin Stanchfield
background can add tremendous depth to your characters.
Minor children as active characters add poignancy to your theme.
Despite this, many writers make little reference to family, and children
often appear only as props. Why?
and family do not belong in every story, but the problem is broader than that.
Many writers hurt otherwise excellent stories by including poorly drawn
children, which leads us to suspect that insufficient information and inadequate
research play a part. Still, more
and more writers use fully realized minor children as characters in stories
intended primarily for adults, creating complex, realistic family relationships
to deepen their adult characters. Here
are a few examples.
Stories with Kids
of the examples of stories with minor children were written by women.
This probably reflects the fact that, even today, a woman is still
statistically likelier than a man to be the primary caregiver for minor
children. It follows that more
women than men will have extensive experience in childcare to draw on to reduce
the amount of research required to write minor children effectively.
More and more fathers, however, are becoming deeply involved parents.
We expect this to reduce the research imbalance as time goes on.
science fiction and fantasy novels are bildungsromans.[i] Still,
fully developed minor children abound in this genre.
In Mercedes Lackey's Arrows of the
Queen, we meet Talia, the heroine, on her thirteenth birthday.[ii]
Arrows of the Queen also
features Elspeth, a spoiled seven-year-old who is heir apparent to the throne of
Valdemar. Elspeth expects Talia to
kneel because she is in the "Presence of the Heir to the Throne."[iii]
Instead, Talia turns the tables on Elspeth, and wins Queen Selenay's
admiration. Later scenes between
Talia and Elspeth evoke the large family setting in which older children serve
as auxiliary parents for their younger siblings.[iv]
Bones of the Past, by Holly Lisle,
two-year-old Kirtha accompanies her mother on a quest.
One character objects that he doesn't want "a helpless mother and
her tiny babe"[v]
to come on the expedition. Lisle's
dialog for two-year-old Kirtha is especially well done. In one scene, Kirtha
gives her shirt to another child.[vi]
Later, the action turns on a beautifully realized play sequence among
children of differing ages. At this
point, the children and their motivations drive the plot.[vii]
J. Cherryh's Cyteen[viii]
and Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood[ix]
both focus on exceptional girls as heroes.
Exceptional children represent a special challenge.
The temptation to write them as small adults is almost overwhelming. Neither Cherryh nor Bishop succumbs, and the results are
outstanding. In Cyteen, Cherryh takes Ariane and her friends from toddler to teen
with remarkable skill. In fact, the
body of Cherryh's work is replete with unusually well drawn teenagers.
Wittig Albert writes about an amateur detective, China Bayles.
China encounters family issues through Brian, the 11-year-old son of her
lover, Mike McQuaid. In Thyme
of Death, China and McQuaid (a single dad) enjoy the luxury of a weekend
while Brian stays with his grandparents.[x]
In a later book, Albert demonstrates her skill in writing middle-school
children. China learns more about
Brian, but their exchanges are indirect, demonstrating the non-interactions that
typify exchanges between adults and children in middle school.[xi]
In Rosemary Remembered,[xii]
the way Brian and China interact builds her development as a character.
At one point, Brian drives the plot with his persistence in seeking a
sci-fi character holo-card.
in her Quinn Brothers Trilogy, Nora
Roberts brings to life on the page two minor children who are critical to the
success of the story – one a
charming toddler, the other a rebellious, frightened adolescent boy.
Roberts demonstrates adult-toddler relations at their best in one short
scene. Ethan, the protagonist,
finds that the neighbor who comes in to help with the cleaning has brought her
daughter with her. In Rising Tides, we
find Aubrey, the toddler, in the front room with Ethan.
"Ouch!" She giggled, rubbed his face again. "Beard."
he skimmed his knuckles over her smooth cheek, then jerked his hand back.
"Ouch. You've got one, too."
He pulled her close and planted noisy kisses on her cheeks while she screamed
with delight. "You."[xiii]
uses proto-sentences to convey the child's age more effectively than
description. Despite their tiny
attention spans, toddlers can be as persistent as older children in pursuing an
objective. Roberts shows both
children as characters whose motivations and actions help drive the plot.
In Rising Tides, the children
are not passive victims. They are characters through whom adult characters see their
own dilemmas in a more compassionate light.
horror writers use children as props. Children
are added as 'extras' to fill a scene, or worse, as victims to elicit the
reader's sympathy. However, writers
such as Stephen King portray children with an honesty and realism seldom seen in
other genres. It is rare for King
to write a novel without including at least one character who is a child. Often even King's adult characters are motivated by events
from their childhoods, a lesson lost on too many lesser storytellers.
Children in fiction, like their adult counterparts, should act with a
healthy sense of [xiv]
self-interest, sometimes selfishly doing whatever they think
is best for themselves. Selfishness
is an all too human trait. Good
writers use it. Great writers live
and die by it.
Stories with Family
sexes are well represented among writers who, like King, use family
relationships to show the motivation of adult characters.
Dorothy L. Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels weave family relationships in and
out of the series. The family is
functional, but has some relationships that work better than others.
Clouds of Witness,[xv]
finds Lord Peter facing a mystery in which his older brother and younger sister
are murder suspects. Neither is
willing to tell him the truth. Peter
finds comfort in a close relationship with his mother in Strong
in which he falls in love with a woman accused of murder. Throughout the series, Sayers uses Peter's love for his
family of origin and his desire for a family of his own as a way to "knock
the sawdust out of "[xvii]
Peter. That it no doubt "hurt like hell,"[xviii]
was not important, because, as Peter concludes, "What would that matter if
it made a good book?"[xix]
David Weber's Honor Harrington also has a healthy family, which Weber cites[xx]
as a reason for the strength of Harrington's character.
Francis' Straight focuses on the
relationship of adult siblings. Derek,
the protagonist, deals with the death of a brother nineteen years his senior.
He finds himself regretting lost opportunities for deeper friendship with
Francis' Sid Halley novels[xxii]
show an unusual twist on family relationships.
He creates an in-law bond so strong that it survives the divorce.
Finally, in Nerve, Francis explores the effects of family expectations on career
choice, health and achievement.[xxiii]
L. Viehl, in her Stardoc novels, uses
family dysfunction as a plot driver. Scenes
between father and daughter[xxiv]
demonstrate an unhealthy relationship in which a parent wants to live the
child's life as well as his or her own. Cherijo's
refusal to be owned and controlled drives the action at many decision points.
The plot of Roberta Gellis' Thrice
is similarly driven by the protagonist's need to escape from an abusive father.
women than men write romance, a genre often criticized for concentrating too
much on family. This
complaint seems unfair. Family
opposition is a classic source of conflict in romance.
An invitation to "meet the folks" signals that a relationship
has commitment potential. Romance
writers sometimes build a series by basing book two on the romance of some
friend or relative of the bride (or groom) in book one.
Cameo appearances by principal characters from previous books can be
overdone, but readers want to know how their old friends are doing, and it would
be inappropriate to deny them completely.
Stories for Kids
writing was once a male-dominated genre. Frank L. Baum, E. B. White, Edgar Rice
Burroughs, and dozens of other men wrote the bulk of children's fiction
throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Even writers such as
Roald Dahl, who tried unsuccessfully for years to distance himself from
children's novels - most of his stories were spy thrillers and occasionally
erotica - is best remembered for the children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.[xxvi]
in the 1960's women began writing children's and young adult novels in
increasing numbers. Simultaneously,
especially in the young adult genre, the writing style became harder edged,
grittier, more true to life. Today,
authors like Jane Yolen, Sherwood Smith, and Annette Curtis Krauss write with
such brutal honesty and attention to detail that their characters absolutely
breathe. Fictional families behave
like real families: brothers, sisters, and parents all wrapped around each other
in the complex knots that bind any flesh and blood unit together. Realism, even in science fiction, fantasy, or horror stories,
has replaced the silly sweetness that once was de
rigueur in children's literature.
we notice that the balance between the sexes has slipped too far.
Instead of becoming a genre in which the contributions of both sexes are
well represented, women writers now dominate the field overwhelmingly.
We suspect that some men who would otherwise write for children and young
adults share Roald Dahl's concern about being over-identified with the genre. Or maybe some publishers feel that kid's writers should be
either stay-at-home moms or single mothers trying to make ends meet.
Regardless of why, the imbalance is regrettable.
Children need to sample a wide range of viewpoints as they find their way
into adulthood. Despite the
imbalance, the challenge of writing books for today's young people is exciting,
and the field is very much in flux, a vital, evolving genre whose full potential
has yet to be tapped by either sex.
of the best observers of human nature are humorists. Whether men or women,
humorists write about the warts and bumps of humanity and turn these flaws into
something both funny and instantly recognizable.
This takes a keen eye. From
Mark Twain to Erma Bombeck to Patrick McManus, the art of being funny relies
less on inventive plots or clever prose than on being able to see through the
grimy facade of day-to-day living to the silver linings beneath. That isn't to
say differences don't exist in the approach women and men take to humor.
Men will often laugh at situations many women consider crude.
Still, the work of a good writer transcends differences, not just between
the sexes but between cultures as well. Good humor is more than a simple set-up
and punch line. The best humor is a fun-house mirror that strips away pretension
and prejudice to let us laugh at ourselves and with each other.
Well-drawn families and children contribute immensely to stories intended for any market, but a badly written child can only detract from your work. To portray children well means serious research even if you happen to know a child of the age in question. In the end, the question of who writes better families, women or men, is probably a matter of taste, where verisimilitude, like beauty, truly is in the eye of the beholder.
bildungsroman centers on the
development of an individual's character.
The hero begins a journey of self-discovery as a result of some loss
(such as being orphaned) or conflict. Because
the journey involves leaving home, interactions with the hero's family of
origin are not featured, and minor children seldom play an important part.
The story ends when the hero has found a way of being him or herself
Lackey, Arrows of the Queen, ISBN 0-88677-189-7 (New York, 19) pp. 13-18.
pp. 64 & 65.
Holly Lisle, Bones of the Past,
ISBN 0-671-72160-7 (New York, 1993), p. 178.
C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen, ISBN
0-446-67127-4 (New York, 1988).
Anne, Daughter of the Blood, ISBN 0-451-45671-8 (New York, 1998).
Susan Wittig Albert, Thyme of Death,
ISBN 0-684-19522-4 (New York, 1992).
Wittig Albert, Witches Bane, ISBN 0-864-19636-0 (New York, 1993) pages
Wittig Albert, Rosemary Remembered, ISBN 0-425-14937-4 (New York, 1993) pages
198,202, 239-243, 263-275.
Nora Roberts, Rising Tides, ISBN
0-515-12317-X (New York, 1998) p. 18.
L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness, ISBN 0-06-104353-2 (New York, 1927).
L. Sayers, Strong Poison, ISBN 0-553-06503-3 (New York, 1930).
L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, ISBN 0-06-080824-1 (New York, 1936) p.
Weber, The Short Victorious War, ISBN 0-671-887596-5 (New York, 1994) p. 43.
Dick Francis, Straight, ISBN
0-449-21720-5 (New York, 1989) pages 44, 117.
Francis, Whip Hand, ISBN 0-671-41903-X (New York, 1979) and Odds Against,
SBN 671-78967-8 (New York, 1966).
Francis, Nerve, ISBN 0- 71-82933-5 (New York, 1964).
S. L. Viehl, Stardoc, ISBN
0-451-45773-0 (New York, 2000), Beyond
Varallan, ISBN 0-451-45793-5(New York, 2000), Shockball,
ISBN 0-451-45855-9 (New York, 2001),
Roberta, Thrice Bound, ISBN 0-671-31834-9 (New York, 2001).
Dahl, Charley and the Chocolate Factory, ISBN 0-375-91526-5 (New York,