Wednesday, 17 November 2010


This is topic comes to you courtesty of The YA Rebels, who've been doing a Ten Things Week on YouTube. Most of them seem to be focusing on physical things that encapsulate their lives or which help them to write. I'm going a bit more philosophical with mine, and - since I want to go into depth without this post becoming unbearably long - I'm only going for a list of five.

Thing Number Five: IDENTITY

Looking at the books I've written and the books I want plan to/want to write, I can see that all of them explore the theme of identity in some way, whether it's a heroine questioning her 'proper' place in the pecking order of her family, or one who discovers that her whole life so far has been a lie. I think this is a topic that comes up often in YA literature, because part of the struggle of being a young adult is learning who you are, who you want to be, and how to live with that. YA fiction needs to reflect that struggle in order to depict fully formed and realistic YA characters.

But I also think that the reason identity comes up over and over in my stories is that it's a theme which is personally significant to me. For a long time my image of myself was defined by other people's expectations of and reactions to me - it was only when I hit my twenties that I began to break free of that and allow myself to explore just who I really was without feeling fear or shame that I was doing something 'wrong' because it didn't fit with a stereotype.

Some people seem to have a very strong idea of who they are from the moment they're born (my niece Clemence is one) while others are gentler and more malleable (like my other niece Alix). But underneath the more obvious traits and characteristics which cause the people in our lives to try to label us - and people, no matter how well-meaning, will ALWAYS be trying to label you - we all have an inner self who is often a complete mystery, even to ourselves. Who are you, really? Do you decide this, or is it preordained? Are some people born bad or good? Does upbringing have the power to shape you, and is it ever possible to break free? My search to answer these questions is part of what defines me as a writer.

Thing Number Four: HIDDEN DEPTHS

Character's hidden depths are my sparkly sprinkles. They make me smile. You, the reader, may never know about them, but every time I put a character on the page I give them hidden depths, secret histories, a little flicker of life that makes them special to me. Here's one: Rashna, in Daughter of the Flames, is Surya's biological daughter. Surya didn't want children and had Rashna adopted when she was born. Shocking, eh? Of course, because these hidden depths are just that - hidden, not explicitly spelled out on the page - you don't have to agree with them. If you want to decide that Rashna is actually Zira's illegitimate sister, that's fine too. I want you to use your imaginations, and when I write I always try to give the reader room to make up their own mind about things like that wherever I can. Nevertheless, I think that the secrets my characters keep has a profound effect on the way that my plots unfold. Most important of all, these secrets make my job fun.


On the surface this seems simple, because all my books so far have been what is called High or Epic fantasy, meaning that I create worlds from scratch for my books, literally building new universes down to the colour of the leaves, where the seas go, and the patterns of the stars. In the future I plan to write urban fantasy books set in contemporary Britain, but even this will involve constructing a magical framework, a world beneath and around our everyday world, that will allow the events of my story to unfold.

However, when I say Unexplored Worlds, I'm not just talking about the fun and hard work of creating fictional universes. I'm talking about pushing myself to take chances each time I sit down to write my next book. I think it's very easy as a writer to get into a rut. To write almost-the-same-plot with almost-the-same-characters in almost-the-same-world each time. Writing can be heart-breaking and scary and when you come up with stories it can be sooo tempting to just do 'more of the same'. Sometimes there's even pressure from agents and publishers on this score as well. I've seen a lot of writers that I loved and respected fall into this trap, and while I understand it, I also think it's a waste.

So I try to explore new worlds with each story that I write. Set myself new challenges. Push myself, even if that means feeling less comfortable. Shall I set this story in an industrialised country? Can I make this story take place over the course of just one week? Try a love triangle? Write a lesbian main character? Write in third person instead of first? Possibly this means that my work will be less polished but hopefully it will also mean that I keep on developing myself and my skills as a writer.

Thing Number Two: ANGST

When I tell people that I write books for young people, they nearly always jump to the conclusion that my books must be funny, madcap adventures for younger children. That's because (as you might have noticed if you read this blog much) I am a funny, madcap and slightly whacky person. But when it comes to my writing, a whole other personality springs to life, and this personality does not laugh much, if at all. She is not whacky or madcap. She is serious. And angsty.

I don't know why. I have no explanation for the fact that when I come to write stories I'm nearly always drawn to the dark ones. I have no idea why, when the first thing people say about me in real life is 'funny', my characters hardly ever get to laugh. When I finished Shadows on the Moon I promised myself I was never going to cry that much over a book again - but FrostFire was even worse.

But even though my characters nearly all go through terrible ordeals, I think their suffering has meaning - not only in terms of moving my plot forward but also in helping them to change and grow, and learn the extent of their own strength, just like in real life. Angst defines me as a writer because I want my characters to be real.

Thing Number One: LOVE

I know what you're thinking. Smoochy smoochy. However, I'm not just talking about romance here.

Love motivates all my characters in some way. In Daughter of the Flames, Abheron's fear of and craving for love causes him to act like a monster, while Zira's love for her country and her people makes her a leader and a heroine. In The Swan Kingdom, Alex's love for her brothers and Gabriel gives her the courage to stop running and fight back for the first time in her life. Love of himself motivates the villain of Shadows on the Moon.

I believe that love is one of the most frightening and powerful forces in human experience. It can make people do terrible things, fill them with fear and hatred, destroy them - and it can also heal people, teach them who they really are, and allow them to perform acts of astonishing bravery and self-sacrifice. Finding out who and what my characters love, how they express that love, the way it changes them, is probably the most important thing to me. It's what helps me to develop all my plots, all my people - and it's what keeps me writing until the end. Without love, I honestly don't think I'd be able to write anything at all.

So those are the things that define my writing. What about you?


Isabel said...

I also think that the personality that comes out in my writing is completely different than my personality in real life. Usually I'm pretty lighthearted and outgoing, but when it comes to my writing, I turn quite serious and angsty. Sometimes I wish that I had the power to make my one-day readers laugh with a good joke. But I just can't. I stink at it. For example, right now I'm writing a scene in my novel that's supposed to be a bit more cheerful and happy. AND IT'S NOT WORKING OUT! I feel ashamed saying that, but, well, it's not that I can never write joyful scenes, or I would make a pretty bad author, but what comes most simply to me are the more meaningful, dark, and sometimes frankly depressing moments. And fighting scenes. Dangerous stuff with super awesome butt-kicking girl-power. But this scene that I'm writing right now is HARD. I think that pretty soon I'm going to have to get my act together, press the highlight button, and delete. Which is not going to be easy. *Sigh*.

Thanks for the post! If Surya is Rashna's mother, who is her father? I'd love to know more of these "hidden depths" of some of the characters you've depicted. I should think about making some for my own characters!

Zoë Marriott said...

I know what you mean - I've always wanted to be a DWJ type writer, who could combine humour and fantasy, but I just can't raise a laugh on the page. It feels horribly wrong.

Rashna's father was a fairly anonymous namoa in the House of God. Surya didn't love him and she was committed to her religious career, so she gave Rashna up - but Rashna always knew who her biological mother was. That's part of the reason why she resented Zira so much. Zira took the place in Surya's heart that was rightfully Rashna's.

bfree15 said...

Another great post Zoe, I thought it was very insightful like we got a small peek inside your brain when you create your books.

Loved the hidden depth you mentioned about Rashna, it explained so much. I loved Rashna she was possibly my favourite character in DotF. I agree with Isabel about wanting to know more of these “hidden depths”.

Zoë Marriott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zoë Marriott said...

Argh. Typos. Anyway, bfree, what I meant to say was: thanks. And I'm really glad that someone else loved Rashna as much as I did. She was one of my favourite characters and I always wished I had done more with her, and had the chance to reveal her hidden depth on the page.

Phoenixgirl said...

I liked how Rashna ended up with a prospective Sedorne lover herself, after all the things she said about Zira and Sorin...

Isabel said...

Ooh, I looove Rashna! I love the concept of a character who starts off as rather bitter, resentful, and cold, but then when their loyalty is put to the test, they reveal a whole new personality. That scene when she is all bloodied and dying at the "party", and then Zira wants to save her by giving herself up, and you see Rashna's personality of sort of haughtiness and authority come out, but in a way that is, like, protecting Zira, and that moment was so beautiful! It would be lame just to make her become "good"; instead, you just see what was hidden from you all along. And you appreciate that character all the more, because they are so real!

Zoë Marriott said...

Phoenix: Yeah, I loved that touch myself. Not sure I'd want to be in her boyfriend's shoes though. I think she might be a tad high maintenance.

Isabel: She's actually a classic Tsundere (that's a manga term for someone with a hidden personality). If you look at Rashna's actions, she always did the right thing. It's just that she was so poisonous verbally that you didn't notice! I think she definitely softened up a bit after falling in love, though...

jaclyndolamore said...

Ooh, so I'm glad you pointed me to this because I am fascinated by writer's different themes anyway. How funny we posted on a similar thing. I might have to do another post that is more from this angle myself...

Also I didn't know you had a feudal Japan fantasy coming out (or else I forgot)...ohmigosh. Must read!

Zoë Marriott said...

Me too! That's why I was so interested to see your take on it. I think that's often why we connect, on a deep down level, with a certain author's work. Their themes match us.

Let me email you about Shadows. We can work out a trade, perhaps...

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