Category Archives: Characters development

Will Tracy Lawson’s novels become this generation’s Ayn Rand substitute?

By SR Staley

Resist, the second novel in Tracy Lawson’s Resistance Series, picks up right where Counteract leaves off: Heroine Careen Catecher and love interest Tommy Bailey are on the run after the murder of the director of the national Office of Civilian Safety and Defense (OCSD). The OCSD is a federal umbrella agency that has subsumed major bureaucracies such as the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and presumably even the Centers for Disease Control. Careen and Tommy have discovered the director of this super agency and his cronies are plotting to use terrorism as a cover to drug the general population under the pretense of inoculating them against biological warfare.LawsonResist,1

Set in the near future (15 years from current day), the Resistance Series explores the loss of freedom that can creep up on individuals and society through incremental changes that seem small but loom large over time. As Lawson says: “In the Resistance Series, there has been no rebellion, no cataclysmic event. The dystopian world in which they live has been created by fear, engineered by an enemy masquerading as a protector.” The premise is scary enough, and remarkably rooted in modern events and policies, as the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and leaked classified information on domestic and international spying remind us.

The setting and premise could easily lend itself to an adult thriller by Michael Crichton, but Lawson’s series is firmly rooted in the young adult/new adult genre. The action is faster, and the story carries a syncopated beat that lends itself to the pace of a YA trilogy, not unlike the Hunger Games. In fact, like Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne, the protagonists are older teens who are simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Rather than the post-apocalyptic setting of Panem, in which the vast majority of the population lives in servitude to the Capitol, Lawson’s protagonists are recent high-school graduates focused on the normal current-day activities of enrolling in college and participating in sports. Only an unanticipated series of small events leads them to discover the sinister plot to turn the nation into a mass of compliant citizens under the thumbs of politically powerful bureaucrats. In this way, Lawson’s series is very much grounded in another characteristic of the YA genre: everyday young adults forced to make significant life decisions without the luxury of experience or preparation. Not surprisingly, both Counteract and Resist tend to be plot- and setting-driven stories although the characters have an opportunity to flesh out in important ways in the second book.

Lawson,CounteractMy review of Counteract compared Lawson’s novel to 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian story the coined the term Big Brother and wrestled with government over reach, the tyranny of collectivism, and the implications for freedom. About halfway through Resist, I couldn’t stop thinking about the novels of Ayn Rand, especially her 1937 novella Anthem. In Anthem, Rand tells the story of a Equality 7-2521, a person who lives in a community in which individuality has been purged from the formal institutions of society. A Council of Vocations assigns jobs to people based on what they determine is their Life Mandate. The story follows Equality’s evolution into an individual as he discovers his natural inquisitiveness and intelligence leads him to innovate and produce. Through unregulated exploration, he discovers the word “I” and finds freedom.

Resist, fortunately, is not nearly as abstract as Anthem, making it much more suitable for YA audiences. It’s relentless focus on personal freedom and the right to live independently of the government is strong and tightly woven into the plot, and the action keeps the reader engaged. More importantly, however, as the characters develop, we see in Resist the makings of a trilogy that provokes readers in ways that more popular genre fiction doesn’t. Katniss Everdeen, for example, remains remarkably apolitical through the trilogy despite bearing witness to extraordinary oppression.AnthemBookCover

Lawson has the refreshing courage to push her characters to act and take responsibility for their actions. They don’t just bear witness. They recognize and accept the responsibilities that come with the knowledge they gain. And they act. Thus, unlike other YA fare, the Resistance Series admirably challenges its readers to ask themselves “What would you do?” and explores the implications of acting on those decisions.

For those looking for an engaging, YA adventure/thriller with strong pro-personal liberty themes, the Resistance Series should have a highly visible place in their book case or on their e-reader.

 

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Game of Thrones and rape as a plot device

By SR Staley

A virtual firestorm of debate erupted last month over a rape scene in the popular HBO show “Game of Thrones,” a long-running series based on George R.R. Martin‘s weighty fantasy novels “A Song of Fire and Ice.” I haven’t seen the specific episode, or the scene, but the controversy appears to be over a creative decision by the producers & writers at HBO to make a rape scene between two characters a central event out of a minor one in the books.  Martin has responded on his blog by noting that creative differences between film, television, and books have a long history. This, of course, is not controversial and we’ve blogged on these differences before (see here , here, and here).GameofThronesCast

What is more controversial, or at least worth discussing further, is the role that sexual violence and rape play in storytelling. Martin is quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Does the pursuit of drama and conflict justify using rape and sexual violence as a plot device? Is rape just a plot device? I’ve struggled with this very question because my novels often deal with sexual violence in some form or another. Systemic rape during slavery is an essential part of the backstory for Isabella in The Pirate of Panther Bayand a motivator for her drive for personal freedom as a pirate. The existential threat to Maria in Renegade is the use of sexual violence and rape to destroy her, physically and emotionally. So, I am very careful to think about how sexual violence and rape figure into the story line and development of my characters. At first blush, I found Martin’s comments flippant and remarkably insensitive.

Of course, rape and sexual violence work as plot devices only to the extent they cause conflict. Ironically, in the value system of Game of Thrones (and most societies before the Enlightenment and emergence of humanism), rape and sexual violence were “normal,” or at least insufficiently deviant to create the conflict that propels story. The fact that readers and viewers are responding to the rape scene in disbelief, anger, and horror because of its depravity is a sign of social and cultural progress. So, in the sense of creating conflict among contemporary readers, rape and sexual violence can be an effective plot device.

But, good stories need more than plot devices. The plot points must move the story and characters forward. This appears to be the essence of the objections to the rape scene in the episode in Season Five of Game of Thrones. On the one hand, rape and sexual violence is a normal part of the story and plot lines. Martin correctly reminds us that his stories are intended portray a medieval world accurately. But this show is not a documentary; it’s a narrative story. The creative question is: Do these scenes move the story and characters forward? Or are they devices used merely to hook viewers through shock?

If they move the characters and stories forward, then rape (and misogyny) serve a creative purpose and are justifiable in the context of the story and storytelling. The decision should not just be about drama and conflict; it should be about story. The writer’s role is to ensure plot points move the characters down the right paths for the story, whether they move into darkness or into light. I can only hope the writers of Game of Thrones have thought through the plot implications, and the system rape and sexual violence isn’t just a plot device to hook viewers through shock.

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Does Sexism pervades storyline of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”?

By Claire W. Staley

Black Widow, or Natasha Romanoff, is a spy in the Marvel Comics universe and, most recently, in the film Avengers: Age of Ultron. She is not the typical super hero, but she’s not a villain, either. She’s someone with both good and bad clearly etched into her character. She doesn’t pretend either way, and she takes the world at full force. She is a goddess of war and a champion of not-so-hero-heroes. She’s the one with the past we know is sketchy but we just believe, deep down, she’s on the good side.avengers-age-of-ultron-alternate

She is not, however, a mother. Parenthood is a large issue for most of the Avengers because Hawkeye (aka Clint Barton) has a family in the film.

But not Black Widow. While Black Widow’s inability to have children highlights the fact that having children inhibits women’s careers across all fields, the way it was handled was disappointing. Barton, as a male, had a family at the same time as being a superhero. This was not an option for Romanoff, as she is a woman, and she is not allowed to have those kind of attachments to children or accept the kind of bodily change that comes with pregnancy. So the choice is removed. The other guys are allowed to flirt and have children without being called into question if they so choose.

But not Black Widow. This can be paralleled in modern society, as having children almost always inhibits a woman’s career. More and more women, however, are deciding not to have children for various reasons, including to focus more on their careers. Women are constantly being called “slut” and “whore” as they exercise their choices involving their sexuality. Meanwhile, men are not impacted by their choice to have a family, have sex, or flirt, as Barton, Stark (Ironman), Thor, and Rogers (Captain America) are not inhibited by it.

Black Widow is the only female Avenger in the group at the outset in the movie, and her character’s personality is incomplete without the ability to have children. Being a superhero, having decent romantic and platonic relationships, and saving good people from death is just not enough. She has to have kids and a house and a family, despite the fact that Stark and Thor are quite content not having kids.

Captain America is the only other superhero who might be interested in settling down, but we don’t see him complaining about his lack of offspring. Actually, it seems hard to believe he would put people he loves in danger. Moreover, it seems hard to believe that any of them would bring families into the world when they could die at any moment, or their families could be used against them.

Black Widow, in contrast, wants a family like Barton. She doesn’t care that it isn’t practical or it would be dangerous. It doesn’t matter she’s almost always about to die. Her womanly role has been taken from her, leaving her to console the self-loathing Hulk (Bruce Banner) like a child. She’s always picking up after the boys, as she states, and she’s the one with enough feminine touch to bring Banner back from his monster state using various methods of motherly speaking and lullabies.

When Banner tells her he can’t have children, Romanoff tells him she can’t either. It is the most haunting part of her, that she can’t have kids. In fact, the Scarlet Witch uses this to distract her from battle. Her inability to produce offspring literally gets in the way of her saving the world. Isn’t her ability to save the world independent of her sexuality, like the other male superheroes? Apparently

Marvel and the movie’s producers reduced Black Widow’s role and personality to someone who only believes she’s worthy if she can give birth. We needed her soft side, her broken side, but we also needed her to understand that her fertility has nothing to do with her ability to be a hero and save people. We needed her to not be given the womanly role of child-bearer for once. We needed her to be a champion because she is a champion, and we needed that to not be put in jeopardy because of her sex.

 

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The social value of dystopian literature

by Claire W. Staley

After discussing dystopian literature with a wide variety of people, including college students and college professors, I have reached a conclusion: this genre is extremely important to our culture right now.

For one, it’s trending. From The Hunger Games to Divergent to Matched, it’s selling fast, which means people are buying. Why are we fascinated by this kind of literature? Why now?

With increased globalization bringing our world closer together, and smaller in the process, we are constantly being asked big questions. Significant questions. Questions that we may not be prepared to answer. Governments around the world are coming closer to home, and with them corruption and conflict. More than that, corruption and conflict within our own government is becoming publicized with increasing vigor by the media.

What does this have to do with dystopian literature? I don’t know about you, but I’m plagued by this question: what kind of governing body, if any, is the best pathway to a healthy and happy life and world? Do we believe in our own governing body, and thus try and implement it around the world? Or are we secretly Jeanine Matthews from Divergent by Veronica Roth, trusting our beliefs so much we are willing to sacrifice much more important things? I saw a quote the other day from Tom Hiddleston, the actor who plays evil Loki in the Marvel Comics Avengers movies, who stated that every villain is a hero in his own mind. Where do we draw that line?

Perhaps that is what dystopian literature is really about. Figuring out who is the hero and who is the villain, and if the two can even be separated. Maybe because, in this world where everything is so accessible, the lines between hero and villain are being blurred. Or perhaps we have just begun to question what we’ve always been told- perhaps heroes don’t have to be dressed in all white, and perhaps villains don’t have to be dressed in all black. Or perhaps we’re trying to figure out if we are, in fact, the villains after all. If we are the villains, perhaps reading these books can show us the pathway to heroism.

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How dwarves ended up in St. Nic, Inc.: An unexpected journey

Little people figure prominently in my newest novel, St. Nic, Inc.  Moreover, the climax hinges on the role of little people. In popular culture, little people are commonly associated with elves of myth, and some people have wondered if this why I included them as characters. Ironically, the mythology surrounding little people and elves is one of the reasons they didn’t end up in the story at all!

I completed the manuscript in 2000, and I didn’t know any little people personally at the time. St. Nic, Inc. is intended for a mainstream audience. So, as I began mapping the Santa Claus myth over the contemporary, reality-based world I was creating, I was trying to create practical analogues that would also be consistent if a North Pole operation actually existed. I purged fantasy elements from the back story. Elves didn’t figure into it, in the same way that the story doesn’t have reindeer, or flying sleighs, or a rotund Santa Claus (who is sometimes referred to as a “jolly old elf”). So, the early drafts tried to avoid little people altogether because I thought little people and elves would be conflated, detracting from the contemporary and reality-based setting I wanted to create.

For more on little people, check out the Little People of America (LPA) website here.

To watch the St. Nic, Inc. trailer, click here.

To buy St. Nic, Inc., click here and help out LPA at the same time!

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