Tag Archives: renegade

Is Katniss Everdeen a strong female character?

I have now seen all four Hunger Games movies and read all three books, and I am now doubting whether Katniss Everdeen’s character is worthy of ascending into the pantheon of strong female characters. Well, that might be too strong of an indictment, but I don’t think she makes into my top ten. This is a reluctant conclusion, but as a novelist who features young adults and women in ensemble stories, I think “strong characters” should have at least five characteristics:Mockingjaypart2

  1. Strong characters should have strong identities. Identities evolve, and characters don’t need to start out strong, but they need to end strong. They have to develop a sense of their own place in the world and how they relate to it. Moreover, this identity has to be recognized by their peers.
  2. Strong characters should relate to peers as a peer.  Self-doubt, even self-loathing, can be powerful tools for the novelist, and often provides tension that propels story. But at some point strong characters need to break out of their narcissism and begin relating to other characters, either as a leader or as a full-blown member of the team. Characters can be first among equals, but they still must operate on the same plane as those they interact with on a regular basis in the story.  
  3. Strong characters should make important choices. Making choices is what defines identity and character. The kinds of choices they make determine the character’s integrity and their honor. The choices do not necessarily have to be the right ones, but the character needs to make them, and they make choices only they can make. These choices propel the character arc and the story.
  4. Strong characters should take personal responsibility. Once these choices are made, the character has to accept the consequences, good or bad, of those choices. These consequences also serve as ways to propel the story, but a key test of a character’s integrity is how they handle the consequences. In most cases, the character has to restore balance, or re-establish some sense of fairness, in the world in which they operate.
  5. Strong characters should exhibit courage. Strong characters are self sacrificing in order to achieve something bigger than themselves. This is again one of the most powerful tools of a character. They can’t lay in hiding throughout the story. Without a doubt, a character can begin weak or cowardly, but they must evolve to a point where their self-sacrifice becomes a defining part of their story. Sometimes, the exhibition can be very small in the context of the story, but it has to be big in the context of the character.

How do I rate Katniss Everdeen along these five characteristics? She never quite achieves a state of self-fulfillment or identity. In fact, she retreats from the world and refuses to engage in it once her tasks are completed. The Hunger Games is very much a plot and setting driven book so the story is very existentialist; the characters are driven to act because of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, the characters are reacting and relating to their environment; they are not manipulating their environment.

Beyond this story-telling constraint, which appears to be intentional by author Suzanne Collins, Everdeen’s character is never in control. Even when it appears to the reader (and viewer) she is in control, she really is not. We never really get the sense that Katniss is her own woman–independent, strong willed, courageous, yes, but she’s not in control of her destiny. Not surprisingly, she plays defense, not offense. Even in a world in which defense is the only option, defensive strategies can be used offensively, but Katniss Everdeen is never that strategic. She leaves it to others to make these choices and take on the risks. In short, her choices do not drive the plot or the broader story. The exception might be in Mockingjay where she decides to go on her own to kill Snow, but even this is a weak form of decisionmaking and commitment. Her quest to kill Snow becomes driven by an existential drive for revenge and retribution, not a reflective choice about outcomes.

Moreover, Katniss’s ultimate goal is to return to her home with her family. When she returns to District 12 without her family, she is essentially forced to cope with the loss, but doesn’t exhibit any of the courage associated with overcoming the scars and wounds of the violence she has experienced. She is depressed, and she has nightmares, but these define her new reality. She never engages in the healing that is necessary to seize control of her life, and she is not challenged after the rebellion finally takes control. We are left with some hope at the end, but we don’t have a real sense she has come to grips with the ugly realities she was forced to confront. We don’t get a sense that her character is stronger or more complete than when she stepped into the Hunger Games for the first time.

So, while Everdeen certainly has several characteristics of a strong female character, she doesn’t exhibit the character or the arc in the story that elevates her to the level of a strong female character or, for that matter, a character that should be emulated or become a role model. Here’s a brief summary of my scoring of Katniss Everdeen as a heroine along these criteria:  

Strong Protagonist Check List
Characteristic

Katniss Everdeen

Strong identity

weak

Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Make important choices

medium

Take personal responsibility

strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Just for fun, and because this is a blog that highlights my professional journey as a writer, I thought I would rate my four principal heroines (I have others) along the same criteria. I’ve taken a look at Nicole Klaas, the CEO of NP Enterprises in St. Nic, Inc., Isabella the escaped slave turned pirate captain in The Pirate of Panther Bay and Tortuga Bay, middle-school bully Maria from Renegade, and the strong-willed Lucy who tries to save her friend Luke from bullies in their school in A Warrior’s Soul. Here are the results: 

Nicole Klaas

Isabella

Maria

Lucy

Characteristic

St. Nic, Inc,

(2014

Panther Bay/

Tortuga Bay

(2014/2015)

Renegade

(2011)

A Warrior’s Soul

(2010)

Strong identity

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Relate to peers as a peer

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Make important choices

strong

strong/strong strong

strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Exhibit courage

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Interestingly, my strongest characters are Nicole Klaas and Maria. Both of these novels won literary prizes. Renegade won second place in the children’s chapter book division of the Seven Hills Literary Competition. St. Nic, Inc. won second place in the Published Mainstream/Literary Category in the Royal Palm Literary Awards. I have taken my own advice to heart, however, and Isabella has evolved into quite a heroine as she takes her crew into the maelstrom of a nascent slave revolt in Port-au-Prince in Tortuga Bay (published in 2015).

While I am disappointed that Katniss Everdeen doesn’t score higher along these criteria, The Hunger Games books remain very engaging reads. I recommend them for their quick pace, anti-violence, anti-war message even though Katniss Everdeen’s character arc is shallow. She is definitely brave and skilled, but she falls short of the leadership qualities and understanding of her own identity that would take her to the top of my list.

Now for shameless self-promotion: get free shipping & handling if you buy any of my books from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing through December 30, 2015! Use the coupon code STNIC.

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RPLA win raises visibility of little people in mainstream society

One of the more gratifying aspects of winning 2nd place in the Royal Palm Literary Competition was that the it happened in October. This month is Dwarfism Awareness Month, and as readers of St. Nic, Inc. know, little people–dwarves–play an important role in the story and plot. I think my fictional characters mirror the roles real dwarves play more generally in our society, even though they are not always recognized or acknowledged. I am pleased that the RPLA award have given greater public visibility to this novel and, by extension, little people.StNicInc,COVER

Someone recently observed that all my novels address a social justice issue of some sort. In the Pirate of Panther Bay series, the stories focus on interpersonal violence and human dignity. In Renegade and A Warrior’s Soul (the Path of the Warrior series), the issue is bullying and sexual assault. In St. Nic, Inc., prejudice and discrimination are critical elements of the plot and storyline. In fact, I can honestly say. without giving too much away, little people are an indispensable element to the story–the story just wouldn’t be the same, and not nearly as interesting, without them. Dwarves are full-fledged, multi-dimensional characters with their own ambitions, courage, fears, skills, and competencies, and their choices as individuals determine the outcome of the story. In no way are they tokens.

Just who are some of these central characters?

  • Rowdy, the software engineer turned businessman, who company’s revenues power the North Pole to achieve its social mission;
  • Ron Cutler, the seasoned corporate attorney turned civil rights lawyer
  • Lisa Patten, the chief of surgery at the North Pole hospital
  • Fred, a professional nurse who befriends one of a lead average-sized characters

Several other characters play smaller but important cameo roles.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeImportantly, St. Nic, Inc. is not a story about little people. Rather, it’s a story about the North Pole, and what it might look like if it really exists. Little people make up about 25% of the North Pole population. Average-sized people play prominent roles as lead characters, but, like all societies, this is an ensemble story with different characters on different paths and arcs.

So, why do little people exist at all? Good question. St. Nic, Inc. was written in part with an eye on broaching a broader discussion about prejudice in mainstream society from a different perspective. I have a lot on my website discussing these issues, and the role of little people in the development of the story as well as their role in the novel, including:

So, thank you RPLA for helping me bring this discussion to a broader audience!

For more information on Dwarfism Awareness month, click here. Support Little People of America by either joining (here) or buying St. Nic, Inc. through the LPA’s web site (under the section “Fiction with dwarf characters”).

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Five expected and unexpected benefits from winning a literary award

By SR Staley

St. Nic, Inc. was awarded second place in the 2015 Royal Palm Literary Awards, and the win was a real confidence booster for me personally. This isn’t the first time I’ve won a book award–Renegade (Wheatmark) took home second place in the Seven Hills Literary Contest and Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Books) earned 1st place in the Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Prize–but the RPLA award has elevated my fiction writing to a new level of respect among my fellow authors.

RPLA_2ndPl_BadgeWith a few more years of experience under my belt, however, I can reflect on the impact of the award and its meaning, personally and professionally. So I put together these thoughts on the expected and unexpected benefits of winning the award.

  1. Professional validation. Perhaps now more than at any other time, authors wonder if their writing is “good enough.” In part, this is due to the tremendous change in the publishing industry. As traditional legacy publishers with integrated national distribution networks consolidate, and smaller presses focus on niches, authors are finding the only practical pathway to publication is often through self-publishing or some form of subsidy publishing. While many excellent books are published through these sources–in fact, Renegade was published through Wheatmark, a very professional hybrid publisher–authors are often left wondering whether their writing is good enough to compete. Winning an award tells us that yes, we can write and we can achieve excellence, at least as measured by our peers.StNicInc,COVER
  2. Reader validation. I didn’t really think about this until I pondered the self-centered nature of a one-star review I received on amazon for, ironically, St. Nic, Inc. The reviewer trashed St. Nic, Inc.–and I mean trashed it–despite a slew of four- and five-star reviews that proceeded it. When our books win a literary contest, we validate our readers and all those who enjoyed our stories and characters. No one who left a good review on amazon.com will ever have to justify their positive review, and, just perhaps, we hold the book snobs and narcissists accountable for their bad behavior.
  3. Raising awareness. Winning an award, or even making it to the semifinals or finals, raises awareness about our work, giving us a needed boost to our marketing efforts. Sometimes, publishers and authors get caught in a cycle of simply generating content and posts on social media just to keep our name visible. But winning a literary award provides real content and is a win-win: Authors benefit because the quality of our work is validated through an external, third-party source and the book awards benefit by marketing their contest, raising the competitiveness and improving the validity of the contest in future years.
  4. Rekindling the joy of writing. Writing is a long, arduous process. As creative as the it can be, we face many periods of slogging through stages we would prefer off load to someone else. I remember when my first book was published–Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities–its actual publication seemed anti-climatic. So much time had been spent finalizing the manuscript, monitoring the book through the production process, developing the marketing plan, and navigating dozens of other smaller administrative decision points that that joy and wonder of writing seemed completely displaced. Winning the Fisher Award goosed my creative energies (as have the Seven Hills and RPLA wins).Renegade,cover
  5. Validating my publisher(s). With nine published books under my belt, I think authors tend to forget the importance these wins have for our publishers. I have become more keenly aware of this since my venture with Wheatmark, a subsidy publisher (but not a true self-publishing company because they don’t take every project), I am more keenly aware of the time, effort, money and resources needed to bring a quality book to press. My publishers–subsidy, self, or traditional–deserve my best efforts to market and sell books for them. Otherwise, they go out of business and our careers stall. In years past, self-publishing was a dead-end for a career. Now, the game is completely different, and publisher like Wheatmark and my current (traditional) publisher, Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, are partners. Winning book awards validates their investment in me as an author.

Many authors are rightly proud of our work when we win an award. But I think the benefits are far broader than we often appreciate. So, this award is not just for me; it’s important for everyone who supports and invests in my career as an author.

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Pirates, Aliens, and Cats, Oh My!

I will be signing copies of the Pirate of Panther Bay, St. Nic, Inc, A Warrior’s Soul, and Renegade at My Favorite Books in Tallahassee on Saturday, July 18, 2015, from 11 am to 1 pm. If you are in town, come out and join me as I talk about these books and others, including the forthcoming Tortuga Bay.June2015-signing

 

I will be joined by Bruce Ballister, the author of Dreamland Diaries and Orion’s Light. These popular sci-fi novels are great for young adults and adults, and Bruce’s stories are characterized as “science fiction with a southern accent.”

 

We will be joined by Chris Widdop, author of Velcro: The Ninja Kat and Velcro: The Green Lion. Check out Chris’s blog for insights into popular culture and media, including timely movie reviews. Need I say more?

I’ve not met Chris before, but he lists Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Interstellar among his top five movies for 2014. I think we’ll get along well.

Don’t forget to visit my updated website for the newest news!

See you on Saturday!

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Lessons in Writing Styles: Cussler vs. Clancy vs. Staley

One of the great benefits of Beta Readers–those brave souls willing to read drafts of your work before presenting it to the world or a publisher–is their insight into your writing style. Sometimes we resist these comparisons–as happened in this case–but they often yield a useful perspective that helps us define our own style and gives us a marketing angle as well.

This came home to me recently while my Tallahassee-based critique group was reading an early draft of St. Nic, Inc., my fourth novel released in August 2014.  After reading the opening chapters, critique group member and aspiring novelist Emily Timm said “Your book reads like a Clive Cussler novel.” After a few chuckles from the other members, she added, “and I mean that in a good way.”

Now, at this point, I was a bit embarrassed. I had never read a Clive Cussler novel, although I knew he had sold a lot of books. In fact, he’s sold millions, and his books have been on the New York Times best seller list twenty times. But this information was really useless to me as a writer, and I didn’t know how to process it. I wasn’t sure if this really was a good comparison.

Then, another reader (but not a critique group member), Mark McNees, said St. Nic, Inc. “artfully combines the action of a Tom Clancy novel with the insightful social commentary and multiple levels of experience as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.” Two more great cites. The contrast in writing styles between these now deceased writers was potentially significant: Orwell wrote in a class literary tradition while Clancy wrote action-adventure-technology thrillers. 

While I am very familiar with Orwell’s work, I wasn’t well versed in Tom Clancy’s, except for watching a few movies based on his novels. Tom Clancy was a genre buster and one of the few writers to have their inaugural novel (The Hunt for Red October) shoot to best seller status.  Still, I understood the genre pretty well, and I was curious how my writing style compares to Clancy’s.

The only way to find out was to read their books. What I found was quite revealing.

Of course, my writing style is different–neither Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, or George Orwell. In part, this is the result of my focus on writing for young adults and middle school readers for the first three novels. St. Nic, Inc. is written for the general fiction market although it is accessible to young adults. These readers want fast plots, plenty of action, and a gripping story. The rule is the less description, the better. In this way, Clive Cussler’s style, although he is geared toward adult markets, is well suited to my approach.

But I also included layered characters with arcs that peak at different times based on the trajectory of the main plot and subplots. Thus, my stories aren’t as straightforward as Cussler’s, and my characters experience significant life changing events that influence how they view the world. Like Clancy, I strive to make my fiction authentic. The Pirate of Panther Bay attempts to stay true to the real world of pirates and the historical context in which the characters live. The Path of the Warrior series attempts to ensure the martial arts self-defense skills are authentic and realistic, set within the context of middle-school bullying and violence. These values permeate the stories and books.

So, where does St. Nic, Inc. fall? Of course, it’s a little bit of each. I admire the lean writing style of Clive Cussler even if it won’t earn him accolades from the literary elite. (Of course, readers love it.) While I would like a little more flourish when reading Cussler’s novels, the action and pace keep me engaged, and I’m not sidetracked by subplots or thinly disguised attempts to be classic fiction. The characters and stories are straightforward, and that suits his fans (and publisher). These are very easy reads, the epitome of escape literature. I like Clancy’s commitment to keep the adventure-thriller grounded in reality and the characters more layered and complex. This also has turned out to be a highly successful strategy, and it probably reflects his own personality as a writer. While still escapist in its approach, Clancy’s novels require a bit more patience and enjoyment of the journey.

Based on the comments I’ve received from readers, St. Nic, Inc. seems to reflect a happy evolution of my writing style, one that embraces a lean writing style with layered stories. I am pleased to embrace comparisons to all three highly successful (for different reasons) literary giants. I’m not sure I would have made these connections, and become more confident in my own writing style, if hadn’t been for the prodding and candid observations of my beta readers, friends and critique group.

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Mapping ninjas into the classroom

Imagine a series of middle-grade novels that allow parents and teachers to explore the following questions in their classrooms:
  • How does violence effect human behavior and psychology?
  • How do stories reflect how people behave through fear, shame, power, strength?
  • What is the nature of courage and leadership, and how does this bystander culture limit it
  • How does bullying, intimidation and oppression, by individuals and in groups, effect human
  • How doe adults relate to children, and how is this different from peer relationships, whether child to child, or adult to adult?
  • How do young teens deal with the challenges, threats and violence they face on a daily or regular basis?
Well imagination is no longer necessary! These themes and more are developed through the stories and characters of A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade.  Honestly, I didn’t realize how thorough these themes were, and how well they mapped over to newly established Common Core literary standards, until I went through the exercise myself.
While I had written the books thinking about classroom use, I was quite gratified to see how well they fit the needs of classroom teachers.The results are available for free download at my website, www.srstaley.com, or by clicking here.
These maps are for 7th grade common core literary standards. I am working on 5th, 6th and 8th grade maps as well.
Stay tuned!
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