So, I wrote this book last year, and it has a story that starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and stuff happens in the middle. Pretty cool, right?
Yes and no. It didn’t FEEL RIGHT, no matter what I did to it. And it took me a long time to realise that I couldn’t fix the problems I had with the story because I had bigger problems with the characters. They were too young, too annoying, too selfish. I had this BOY — Nate — and he was dark and edgy and angry, and I was consistently annoyed at Scarlet for secretly liking that, because she didn’t have a good reason for it other than just because that’s what 17-year-old girls do. They like boys who treat them badly — and they treat those boys badly — because when you’re 17 love seems like something that SHOULD be dark and edgy and angry.
And it seems like that because we TELL them it should be like that. Hell, I did it the other day with my ridiculous love for a murderous vampire (see also: Eric Northman, Spike, etc). And I can tell you that he’s a FICTIONAL murderous vampire, and I make better choices in reality, but… I made pretty shitty choices as a teenager. I still do. The descriptors “nice” or “kind” have never made it onto a list of what I look for in a man, because I’m KIND OF AN IDIOT. A SINGLE idiot, no less.
I started Sparks shortly after reading Twilight. But, unlike most of the people who started a novel after a dose of Sparkle Fever, I did it because I was HORRIFIED by Bella’s passive only-my-man-gives-my-life-meaning attitude, and Edward’s I LOVE BECAUSE I STALK-iness. It scares me so much that girls might see Bella Swan as a role model. The tough, awesome ladies I’ve grown up with — Buffy and Willow and Veronica and Starbuck and Stephanie Plum — seem to be vanishing under a slew of damsels in need of a DARK, ANGSTY BOY to rescue them.
I wanted to write something that had a sassy, kick-ass heroine who could take care of herself, and who didn’t rely on a dude for anything. Scarlet turned out to be all those things, but there was still a BOY, and he was still DARK and ANGSTY and not very nice. She was dark and angsty and not very nice, too, but while I was editing, I realised their relationship made me nothing but uncomfortable anyway. They don’t have a single healthy interaction in the entire story. Add to which, Scarlet spends the whole book dumping on the one fundamentally decent person in her life, but I couldn’t even point out to her how messed up that was because I wrote in first person, and SHE COULDN’T SEE IT.
It took me months to realise that all I’d done was switch the roles: I’d basically made a girl-version of the DARK ANGSTY BOY. Scarlet is cruel and manipulative and bullies weaker characters into getting what she wants — and they let her do it because she’s charismatic and quippy and has a Tragic Past. I feel as creepy about her getting the guy(s) as I did about Edward getting the girl, because the balance of power is lopsided.
Scarlet uses sex as a bargaining chip and a weapon with more than one minor character, and I wanted her to figure out why that was wrong — but without apologising for daring to write a female character who divorces sex from love like — just as for example — every bad boy ever. But it didn’t really happen that way, because she never understood what she was doing. And through it all, she’s STILL pining for the dark guy with ALL THE ANGST, even though all they do is fight. She can’t control him or bully him, which makes their relationship more balanced than anyone else’s, but it still doesn’t make it good.
I don’t feel like I’m making myself terribly clear, but I wanted to try and make this distinction up front:
I LOVE bad boys. I find their pain delicious. Hell, TIG is my favourite Son of Anarchy. Dude does corpses (and possibly horses?) and murdered an innocent mother of two, and man, I like it when he cries. I’m interested in that — in what people will do and how they cope with having done it. I like fuck-ups. I’ll probably always write fuck-ups, because I’m an anti-hero kind of girl. I’m interested in the dark bits and the grey bits and the sticky in-between bits.
I didn’t want to write a story with a NICE BOY, because I’m much less interested in them (sorry, nice boys! In reality, you would win!), and I wanted Nate’s snark to counterbalance Scarlet’s. I had this idea that this tough, hard-headed chick would run headlong into this tough, hard-headed guy, and lots of delicious, sparkly fireworks would result. But both of them were TOO tough and hard-headed, and I never quite worked out how they really felt about each other (it’s not like I can READ THEIR MINDS, you know!).
Scarlet says that she doesn’t believe in love, and she sets out to prove that it’s self-serving and harmful and she’d be better off without it… and the problem, I think, is that she kind of DOES. Sparks doesn’t have a happy ending (this is a whole different issue!), but treating people like shit mostly gets Scarlet what she wants. She has no real friends and goes no way towards making any, and although that backfires on her in the end, I don’t feel like she learns anything from it.
I love the bad guy, but I love the bit where they REALISE they’re the bad guy, and they’ll never have what they want because of it. I’m interested in the TRAGEDY of the bad boy story. You have to break a bad boy down to get at the creamy caramel centre — otherwise he’s just a jerk.
And Scarlet? She’s kind of a jerk.
I started this post thinking it was going somewhere feministy — around how Scarlet never really has a reason to like Nate other than that he’s hot and mean to her, and that isn’t cool, no matter how tough she is in her own right — but I’ve ended up somewhere different. Part of me is annoyed that on a girl, a bunch of fairly typical bad-boy behaviour looks much, much worse, and that’s not cool either — and part of me is interested in that mirror, because it makes it easier to see why her story doesn’t work. There’s no emotional resolution, no cathartic pus-draining moment. Her candy coating cracks, but it doesn’t shatter. I understand why she feels how she feels, and acts how she acts, but she doesn’t; and since that moment never comes, she can’t change.
How did it work out that way? I don’t know, man. I was there, after all. It seems obvious now, looking back, why all this stuff felt wrong, and why the story as a whole doesn’t work, but you’d be surprised what you can’t see when you’re looking from the inside out.
I failed objective one in the satisfying emotional journey handbook: figure out what your character is most afraid of, and crush them with it. I broke Scarlet down physically and socially, but I let her keep her security blanket: the first line of the book is “I don’t believe in love” — from page one, it should be obvious that that statement is going down. The story begins there, and ends when proven wrong — the stuff in the middle about solving a murder is just a vehicle for that journey. THE BOY, if he really is The Boy, needs to be the LYNCHPIN of that operation. And mine isn’t. He’s another kind of security blanket — what Scarlet really needed was her own Bella Swan.
HOW DID WE GET THERE, ANYONE WHO IS STILL READING?
I don’t mean he needs to use way too many adjectives and try and throw himself off cliffs, and I really don’t mean he needs to think that Scarlet is the only thing that makes him worthwhile — but she needs to run into him like a wall; a big, solid buttress of everything she’s avoiding, and he has to force her to deal with it. He kinda needs to be a NICE BOY. He needs to be what she isn’t, and show her what she’s missing.
I’ve been writing this for three days now, and it’s been morphing in my grip the whole time. I’m no longer making the point I meant to make, but — for myself, anyway — I think I’ve done something better. I feel better about Sparks than I have in months — and better about trunking it, too. Maybe it should scare or horrify me that I missed all this stuff inside my own story, but, actually, it’s one of those good-tingle moments — something I created surprised me, and, at the most basic level, that’s as good as it gets. That’s why I’m here.
PS: For the record, I’ve only read the first book of Twilight. But I have read this. You should too.