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Today’s guest is Jennifer Marie Brissett! Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, The Future Fire, Lightspeed Magazine, Motherboard VICEUncanny Magazine, and many other publications, and she’s also contributed to anthologies and collections such as Sunspot Jungle and Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler. Her science fiction debut novel, Elysium, won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and was selected for the Tiptree Award Honor List. Destroyer of Light, her second novel, is coming out this summer!

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett Cover Image

The Sophomore Book
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

“It takes a lot of work to make it as a writer, and the writing isn’t the hardest part.”

These are words I wish I had heard years ago when I started this journey.


My career began “late” by many people’s standards. For most, I suppose this would be about my age. For others, it would be because I didn’t begin writing when I was eleven years old. But for me, “being late” means that I don’t have several rejected books under my bed. Folks who have those have no idea how much of an advantage they have. I know that to them it feels like they are accumulating failure. Yet, I can clearly attest to anyone that a bunch of unsold books gathering dust under their mattress means that they are literally lying on a pile of gold like a sleeping dragon.

Completing a first book is a major milestone for any writer. Whether that book remains under their bed until the day they die or sells to a publisher, it tells a writer that “yes, you can do this!” The second, or sophomore, book tells a writer that the first book wasn’t a fluke and that “yes, you can do this again and again!” It is possible, maybe even likely, that neither of these books sell—at least not right away. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It can take years to get a writing career going and that’s not always a reflection on the quality of the writing. Sometimes the work simply is not in tune with what’s selling at the moment. 90% of success is just showing up. So aspiring writers should be constantly writing and sending out work. So, what do you do if you are producing all this writing but it’s also constantly being rejected? Well, we writers have a saying, “Trunk it,” which means that we file it away somewhere. But that doesn’t mean that the story or even novel is dead. On the contrary, one day when your career is finally moving, you will find that pile of rejected and/or unsold work will be a wealth of material to draw from to either present to your agent or publisher for publication, or to gather ideas from for your next new project. You will be able to basically steal from yourself!

This may be all well-and-good for those who’ve been working for years and years at their writing—you lucky so and so’s 🙂—but what about folks like me who started “late”? I began writing in my late 30s; went to grad school of creative writing when I was 40; and, sure, I now have a bunch of stories in print and a book that did very well with a small publisher (Elysium, Aqueduct Press). But… this is the point at which a “normal” writer could pull from that pile of unsold books and stories that have been rejected over the years. I have none of that. Everything I have is being produced right now in the moment. That’s a huge disadvantage I have. It makes me slow to turn out new books and seem less prolific in a field that prizes the next book yesterday.

So what has it been like working on my sophomore book—it’s been exhausting. Life happens when you’re a writer even when you would like it to stop for a minute so you can catch your breath. There are so many distractions. Like every other working writer, I have a life that I have to manage while I produce my work. And I’ve felt under pressure while writing this very emotionally difficult book—my sophomore book—because I’ve felt (feel) that this book could make or break my career. In all fairness, this is probably not true. Regardless of what happens with this book, I probably still will be able to continue writing and publishing. The important thing to understand is that feeling that my career depended on how this book turned out helped to make writing the book maybe a bit more difficult than it should have been. This is how having books already gathering dust under my bed would have been helpful. I wouldn’t have been starting from zero. There would have been a little crutch for me to lean on when I was feeling terrified of the blank page.

But there are advantages to writing by the seat of my pants. One of them is that all my writing is guaranteed fresh and immediate. I’m writing about what I’m thinking now at this age—not what I was thinking at twenty. I’m writing with all the wisdom of a lifetime to guide my prose. There is a no-nonsense sensibility to what I write, too. Playtime for me is over. There’s no slackness of trying something “just cus…” When I write and publish something, know that I have not compromised on content and that I fought like a lioness for every word that I thought mattered.


Another aspect of having my sophomore book come out is that I have the experience of the first to teach me a lot about the field. Not everything, but a lot. I have learned that whether someone can make a career of writing has less to do with their writing as it does with a writer’s business sense. Talent actually is not rare. I’ve met a lot of talented people. I’ve taught a lot of talented people, too. But having the good sense to treat people with decency, and even to help others along the way, are not lessons that everyone learns, but are also a part of a writer’s success. Knowing who to associate with (other writers, agents, publicists, mentors, etc.), who you choose to support, who has chosen to support you, even knowing who to leave behind because they are holding you back, are all factors in the success, middling, or failure of a career. This is hard stuff.

At this point, I’ve encountered a lot of people in the science fiction and fantasy field. It’s amazing how easy and fast it is to meet folks, especially if you have a book that is doing well. Some people have been absolutely lovely; others have been the devil’s own. I have learned not just as a writer, but as a person, that along with being kind, it’s also important to be smart. Not everyone you meet in this field should be your friend. Watch what a person does, not just what they say.

Another thing I’ve learned since my first book came out is that writers have a tendency to hear the criticism louder than we hear the praise. At least I can definitely say that about myself. It’s important to learn to be tough enough to tune out the noise. A critique on a work-in-progress from your writer friends is far different than a published review. One is for the benefit of the writer. The other definitely is not. Even as I received a lot of praise for my first book there were those who went out of their way to personally accuse me of some very unkind things. Is this because I am a woman? Is this because I’m black? Is this because I’m both? I don’t know. I can’t read into their minds. But now I have the experience from my first book to tell me how I can’t afford to be distracted by this stuff. Distractions can fill my head, and all my next books are only in my head. Since I don’t have a pile under my bed to draw from, I have to stay doubly focused because these distractions can hamper my writing.

Whether I have what it takes to make it as a science fiction and fantasy writer depends on how I handle the next few months. Which bridges I choose to build, and which I choose to napalm, can determine how far I go in this field. I need to choose wisely. Moving from a small press to a large one has required more compromises than I ever imagined. It has actually been quite difficult. I’ve truly needed the group of more seasoned authors that I’ve built over the years to gather advice from, and I’ve tapped that wisdom pool several times. (Thanks, guys!!) The image of the solitary writer creating a masterpiece all by themselves is a complete utter (excuse the pun) fantasy. It simply doesn’t happen that way. Every successful book has tons and tons of people behind it—and not just the editors, agents, and publishers—but the friends, fellow writers, and the loving spouses (who patiently listened to you go on and on about how tough this writing game is for years on end) are also a part of the success story.


In the end, I feel that I have to trust the instincts that I have developed over the course of a lifetime to guide me. My sophomore book may or may not be successful. Only time will tell. But I will lean on the lessons from the publication of my first book as well as my life experiences to carry me through. For me, this means trying hard to stay focused and to tune out distractions. It also means that I won’t be messing with people who are problematic. As Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This is my life now. I chose this. I write because I love writing. It’s given me much joy to share my stories with others. But everything comes with a cost. That’s what James Baldwin meant by the “Price of the Ticket.” How much am I willing to pay to be the thing I want to be, which in my case is a successful science fiction and fantasy writer? We’ll find out in the next few months and years. Wish me luck.

Jennifer Marie Brissett Photo Jennifer Marie Brissett once owned an indie bookstore in Brooklyn called Indigo Café & Books. Now she is an author and has written the novel ELYSIUM (Aqueduct Press) which won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation Award and was a finalist for the Tiptree and Locus Awards. Her sophomore novel DESTROYER OF LIGHT (Tor Books) will be published in the summer of 2020! She currently is a professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in NYC. Her website can be found at www.jennbrissett.com

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Today’s guest is fiction writer and poet Shveta Thakrar! Her story “The Rainbow Flame” was a selection in Year’s Best Young Adult Speculative Fiction 2015, and her work can also be found in Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold, Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft, A Thousand Beginnings and Endings: 15 Retellings of Asian Myths and Legends, The Underwater Ballroom Society, Uncanny Magazine, Mythic Delirium, and many other publications. Star Daughter, her debut novel, was described in the Rights Report as “contemporary YA fantasy inspired by Hindu mythology [that] follows a half-mortal/half-star girl who must win a celestial competition to save her human father’s life”—and is coming out August 11!

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar Book Cover
Artwork by Charlie Bowater; design by Corina Lupp of HarperTeen

As a writer and someone whose expectations of relationships used to be deeply shaped by the books I devoured as a kid, I think a lot about the messages in stories. We tend to get trained by the things we’ve already read and watched to think stories have to go a certain way—the parents must be out of the picture in a kidlit adventure, the lead characters must end up together even if the story in question isn’t a romance, the main character must keep her magical identity hidden from everyone, and so on.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good trope, but as a writer, I’m interested in exploring how I might build on them in the stories I tell. Why, for example, can’t girls support one another throughout the course of a story? Sure, our world is a patriarchal one for the most part, but that doesn’t mean caring people and loving, supportive female friendships don’t exist. It’s not all Mean Girls out there, and there’s no reason our fiction can’t reflect that.

In the earliest drafts of Star Daughter, even though the main character Sheetal and her best friend Minal have known each other since they were tiny, for most of their lives, Sheetal kept her stellar heritage secret from Minal. Of course, when their big Moment of Revelation finally happens, Minal is left feeling betrayed and scared of this person she’d thought she’d known. I showed that draft to a friend, who rightly asked me why: Why did Sheetal have to hide who she was from someone who loved and would support her? More importantly, my friend added, how did that even make sense? They’re best friends; there’s no way the truth wouldn’t have come out a long time ago.

Click. My friend had pulled the cord on the lamp in the room of my thoughts, and suddenly I could see what had been hidden in the shadows. Why had I done that? Because I had internalized the way fantasy stories went: the heroine always suffered in isolation. But once I really thought it through, that didn’t actually make any sense, and also, it wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell. The story of my heart was one that celebrated friendship and family even as those things complicated and enriched the situation for the protagonist. What I really wanted was to write a female friendship like the kind I wish I’d had as a teenager.

So I did. In the final version of Star Daughter, Minal knows the truth. She’s the first—and only—person Sheetal can turn to when the crisis begins, and she helps Sheetal stay grounded (sometimes with wry humor and blunt commentary). In return, there’s no question of Sheetal leaving her bestie behind when she sets off to find her starry mother. The story is still Sheetal’s, as are the obstacles she has to overcome, but that doesn’t mean she has to go through any of it alone, nor does it mean Minal can’t have her own arc alongside Sheetal’s. And that decision seems to have worked; one of the repeated comments I’ve gotten from early readers is how much they enjoyed the girls’ friendship.

But I also made that decision because I have no use for the toxic idea that women and girls are always at one another’s throats, that we can’t be celebrating our sisters’ success as well as our own. That we must be in competition instead of working together to find solutions and make things happen. That’s not what my life looks like, and I want my readers to know it doesn’t have to be like that for them, either. I’m tired of compassion and kindness being undervalued, even derided, in our media. I want there to be room in fiction for the things that lift us up, too.

I want my work to say it’s okay to lean on others—that, in fact, we have to. So many of our stories are about the Lone Hero(ine), but there’s no such thing as success in a vacuum. Human beings need one another both to survive and to flourish. We help one another grow and balance one another with our individual flaws and gifts. As a person who firmly believes in and seeks out enchantment and inspiration in her life, I know we make some of the best magic of all in collaboration.

If there’s a takeaway from Star Daughter, it’s this: you don’t have to go it alone, and there is a place where you belong, along with people who will help raise you up and catch you when you stumble. And if you choose to read Star Daughter, I hope Sheetal and Minal leave you feeling that way, too.

Shveta Thakrar Photo
Photo by Lindsey Márton O’Brien of Lumina Noctis
Shveta Thakrar is a part-time nagini and full-time believer in magic. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including Enchanted LivingUncanny MagazineA Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and Toil & Trouble. Her debut young adult fantasy novel, Star Daughter, is forthcoming from HarperTeen on August 11, 2020. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp.

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Today’s guest is The Lost Girl author and Color Outside the Lines editor Sangu Mandanna! If you’ve been following this site, you’ve probably seen me gush about her fantastic Mahabharata-inspired Celestial Trilogy, which begins with a secret princess besting her twin brother in a contest for a god-forged sentient warship—despite a war goddess advising her against taking that path. A Spark of White Fire, the first book in this young adult mythic space opera series, kept me riveted with superb pacing and plenty of family drama. The next installment, A House of Rage and Sorrow has one of the best ending sequences I’ve read and left me eagerly anticipating the conclusion, A War of Swallowed Stars—coming this October!

A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna Book Cover A House of Rage and Sorrow by Sangu Mandanna Book Cover A War of Swallowed Stars by Sangu Mandanna Book Cover

Creativity in the Time of Corona

This is a worrying, stressful and frightening time for almost all of us across the world, which is in itself almost unprecedented, so I don’t think I’m alone when I say that it’s been incredibly difficult to hold on to my creativity over the past several weeks. Some days, all I can do is keep my children alive and get them to bed before I, too, fall asleep; other days, I can read a book, maybe, or play some Animal Crossing, or even doodle a little before my energy burns itself out.

Honestly, neither of these kinds of days is wrong. It’s okay to only be able to achieve the bare minimum right now, it’s okay to find that you haven’t got the energy or time or space to care about anything other than basic survival, and it’s okay if you haven’t been able to fill your days with activities and projects and Instagram tutorials. Let your mind and body rest, however that rest manifests itself, and try not to feel guilty about it (easier said than done, I know!)

That said, maybe you’re in a position where creativity is essential. Maybe, like me, you find yourself feeling anxious and depressed if you don’t have something creative to focus on. Maybe you have deadlines that require you to be creative, maybe you have a creative job that you can’t risk losing at an uncertain time like this, or maybe you have a hobby you love that you’re having a hard time getting stuck into because you can’t quite switch off from the outside world.

So how, then, do you find ways to be creative even when there’s a global pandemic and you’re more anxious than you’ve ever been in your life?

There’s no easy answer that will work for everyone, but here are a few things that have worked for me over the past few weeks. Maybe some of them will work for you!

1. Exorcise those demons through your art
This is an obvious one, and one that has worked for authors and artists for centuries. Sometimes, the only way to make sense of huge, terrifying things is to immerse yourself in them. For example, you could write a survival story, give your characters all the conflicts you’ve already faced or are afraid you may yet have to face, and then give them a happy ending. Putting those demons down on paper (or in any other creative form that works for you) is sometimes the best way to exorcise them.

2. Play ostrich
Alternatively, you could go the opposite way and try to avoid reality altogether! Yes, it is important to stay informed about what’s happening, especially in terms of what rules, laws and procedures your city or country is putting into place to tackle the virus, but there’s nothing wrong with taking in the essential information, acting on it where possible, and then quietly retreating from it. One of the things that’s helped me most over the past few weeks is reading romance (I love romance at the best of times, but the escapism has been especially wonderful lately!) and playing gentle, fluffy videogames. After an hour or two of playing Animal Crossing, I find I’m in a much better frame of mind to write a few hundred words of my manuscript.

3. Work on something else
This is something that works for me in pretty much any other circumstance too. Often, if you’re stuck or struggling with a particular project or can’t quite stop worrying long enough to work on the thing you’re supposed to work on, the best thing to do is to take a break and work on something else. I do this quite often and I’m always amazed by how quickly my creativity is unlocked, which makes it that much easier to then go back to the project I was meant to be working on in the first place!

4. Go outside
This is difficult when we’re all in isolation, but if you have a garden, or even just a balcony, try to spend some time outdoors. A bit of sunshine and fresh air is always good for us, of course, but sometimes I find that the act of being physically out in the open can also make my mind feel less tight and confined too.

5. Get cosy
The flip side of #4! There are times when I barely have the energy to get myself out of bed, let alone get out into the garden. At times like this, what I try to do where possible is make myself a warm, snuggly nest somewhere in the house; sometimes it’s on the sofa with blankets and a toddler draped over my arm, sometimes it’s in bed with music on, and sometimes it’s a sunny spot by a window. Getting snug like this is a great way to feel safer and more secure, which is a much needed feeling at a time like this, and that sense of safety may be just what you need to get your creativity flowing again.

What works for me may not work for you, but I hope that something here helps you even a little bit. Above all, though, I want to stress that the most important thing right now is not to put more pressure on yourself. We’re all already worried about our families, our friends, our health, our income, toilet paper, and so much more. If being creative helps you cope with that, then by all means, pour your heart and soul into it if you can.

But if creativity feels like just one more thing you’re demanding of yourself, one more pressure, then it can wait. I promise you, it can wait.

Sangu Mandanna Photo Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids.

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Thank you so much to last week’s guests! There is another week of guest posts starting tomorrow, but before announcing the schedule, here’s how you can catch up on anything you’ve missed this month.

All of the guest posts from April 2020 can be found here, the first week in review can be found here, and in last week’s guest posts:

And the recommendation list project has been updated and opened for new recommendations! In 2013, Renay from Lady Business asked readers to submit some of their favorite science fiction and fantasy books written by women and we’ve been collecting submissions every year since. After updating it to include last year’s submissions, the list now includes 2,710 titles, many of which have been recommended multiple times. (There’s one book that’s been recommended 58 times!) It’s also possible to add more books to the list: you can add up to 10 of your favorites (or, if you’ve already done that, 10 of your favorites read over the last year).

Next week, Women in SF&F Month 2020 continues with guest posts by:

Women in SF&F Month 2020 Schedule Graphic

April 20: Sangu Mandanna (The Lost Girl, Celestial Trilogy)
April 21: Shveta Thakrar (Star Daughter, “The Rainbow Flame”)
April 22: Jennifer Marie Brissett (Elysium, Destroyer of Light)
April 23: Andrea Stewart (The Bone Shard Daughter)
April 24: Robin Kirk (The Bond, The Hive Queen)

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Today’s guest is fantasy and science fiction author Katharine Kerr! Her work includes the urban fantasy series Nola O’Grady and The Runemaster, the science fiction series Polar City, and of course, the epic fantasy books in her bestselling Celtic-inspired Deverry Cycle. Her latest novel, Sword of Fire, is the first book in The Justice War—a new trilogy set in the world of Deverry!

Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr Book Cover

What is Good Prose, Anyway?
Katharine Kerr

Both writers and readers love to discuss, and argue about, what constitutes “good” prose. The conclusion I usually end up drawing from these discussions is that the definition really comes down to a matter of taste—from the reader’s point of view, that is. Some people enjoy complex sentences and unusual words. Some people hate them. Some people hate short sentences and basic vocabulary. Others like them. And so on. No one definition of “good” writing is ever going to please every reader.

On the other hand, we might look at the problem from the writer’s point of view. What constitutes good prose?  I submit these definitions: prose that has the effect upon the reader that the writer intended it to have is good. Prose that doesn’t, no matter how polished, is poorly done.

Does the writer want the reader to zip through the story and enjoy it as an entertainment? That will require one style of prose. Does the writer want the reader to experience the story as an immersion into a strange and foreign place and time? That will require another. Is an incident supposed to be funny? Humor demands a certain choice of words. Is the incident supposed to make the reader get all teary-eyed? Then the writer had better avoid that distanced, ironic humor.

We can define “bad” prose as words that fail to do what the writer wants them to do. Really bad prose is so muddled that we can’t even tell what the writer had in mind, but such rarely does get into print. Usually the examples are less extreme. A strict-genre entertainment might be written in such complex, rambling sentences that a reader looking for a few hours of escape decides to throw the book across the room. A thoughtful, serious near-future SF work that sounds like a middle grade adventure story is not going to get much respect.

Here’s an example of how bad prose can wreck a story, one I remember from a writing class of many years ago. I’ve forgotten the writer’s name, and I bet he’d be glad I have. Anyway, the story concerned a Sensitive, Poetic Young Man who yearned for a certain girl at a high school dance. He asks her to dance, she makes fun of him, his pain knows no bounds. The reader does feel his pain and feels sorry for him until he rushes out of the dance into the parking lot, where

“in the glare of floodlights the pale trunks of the eucalyptus trees looked like cottage cheese.”

That, folks, is story-shattering prose.

Katharine Kerr is the author of the Deverry series of epic fantasies, the Nola O’Grady series of light-hearted contemporary fantasy, the “Runemaster” duo, and a few science fiction works, mostly notably SNARE. Although she spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city, she became a confirmed Californian at age nine, when her family relocated there. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, his caregiver, and a cat.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Devin Madson! Her work includes We Ride the Storm, a finalist in the 2018 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off; In Shadows We Fall, winner of the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novella; and The Vengeance TrilogyWe Ride the Storm and the rest of The Reborn Empire series are being traditionally published with the trade paperback of the first book coming in June—but you can read the ebook edition of We Ride the Storm right now!

We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson Book Cover

Perfectly Shallow Characters

When we think of poorly written characters, it’s often the obvious things we focus on — senseless decisions, insufficient motivations, or in the case of female characters, boobing boobily down the stairs with their booby boobs. These issues are easy to see and often pull us out of a story, but sometimes characters feel flat despite having believable motivations and not boobing boobily around (no, I will never stop saying that), and it’s hard to put your finger on quite why that is. In my experience, the reason is almost always because of a subtle and insidious thing I’ll call social ideals. What that means is that, without even thinking about it, we have a tendency to create characters who conform to our society’s perceptions of perfection and purpose. BUT… as you are all probably well aware, many of our social expectations are far from realistic (see almost any magazine cover for examples of unrealistic beauty expectations).

I’m sure everyone can think of obvious ones — men shouldn’t cry, women must aspire to beauty, women shouldn’t be taller than men, women should be attractive but also sexually virtuous. In fact, female characters are particularly susceptible to being flattened in this way because our society puts a lot of pressure on women to be perfect. Not just perfect in looks (buy this cream and that makeup and you have no value unless you look like a cover model) but in behavior. Women have to be nice. Women have to smile. Women have to be helpful. Caring. They aren’t allowed to struggle. They have to have it all. Be it all. I could go on forever. But the point is, that this expectation for women to be perfect — whatever form that takes — often leads us to write female characters at the very extremes of any spectrum. Perhaps because to not do so risks the dreaded question ‘well why did it have to be a woman then? What was the purpose? The REASON it couldn’t have just been a man?’

(This is also why we so often hear the even more common question, but why are they gay/disabled/black, something something forced diversity something something, because for some people the social ideal they’ve absorbed from a lifetime of very white, very cis, very abled media is that those differences are just complications. To them, such a character has no place and would not exist in an ideal world thus can only be in the story if their identity has a clear narrative purpose.)

While that is, on its own, a whole other rant (and one I am nowhere near qualified enough to put into words), this concept affects the depth of all characters, not just in the potential lack of diversity, but in the lack of… let’s call it Messiness. Our society has no value for messy. Think about your Instagram or your Twitter feed. When you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and you see something pretty, most people are going to like it, while scrolling on past anything that doesn’t fit our social ideals — untidy houses, unattractive selfies, or even a miserable status update. BUT… if you consider the things you really click with on social media, it’s often the opposite. We may give our tick of approval to pretty pics and happy status updates, but they don’t touch us. Not the way someone’s all too real tweet about parenting might, or a friend’s emotional outpouring, or even the picture of a dirty house helping us feel better about our own lack of domestic perfection. We may not always hit like for these things (thank you social ideals), but they are the ones we feel more connected to because they are real.

Characters are like that. We have been socialized to a certain set of ideals and they have a sneaky way of making it into our writing even when we don’t want them to. Even when we think ourselves immune.

(As a side note, this concept is also why many characters get erroneously dubbed a Mary Sue/Marty Stu, even when they aren’t. Often those characters just have a very strong adherence to the prevailing social ideals.)

Most authors learn early that it’s unrealistic for their characters to be instantly good at everything, or for all of them to be remarkably beautiful, and that perfect paragons are a bit boring, but it can take a lot of honesty and self-awareness to truly embrace the Messy Character. The ones that wield the magic swords and fight the grand battles, but still have such complicated REALNESS that we can see ourselves in them, can really connect with their plights and their experiences. The characters who are capable of feeling two conflicting emotions over the one event, the ones who dither, who run out of spoons, who hit their ceiling on making decisions for the day and just want to lie down and sleep, the ones who know something is a really terrible idea but will do it anyway for a whole slew of complicated reasons, because objectivity is really only available to a detached reader, not someone living in the moment. These characters ugly cry, they get confused, they are sometimes impenetrable, and they experience the human condition in all the same complicated, inelegant and painful ways we do, and in being less ideal, less definitive, become more alive.

Most characters are written with flaws, but like when you’re asked about your flaws in a job interview, social expectations often lead us to state things like that we care too much and work too hard and that in fact our flaws are an excess of perfection rather than a lack of it. And in characters it’s often expected to be one obvious thing. But when I think about all the amazing characters I’ve read lately (Kalina and Jovan from Sam Hawke’s POISON WAR series, Dannarah in Kate Elliott’s BLACK WOLVES, and literally everyone in Tasha Suri’s forthcoming THE JASMINE THRONE, which is an absolute must read for messy, complex and painfully real characters) they all lack this single, easily definable flaw all heroes are meant to fight against and overcome, and instead have something far more valuable — muddy depths.

But of course, the ultimate struggle most authors have in writing these kinds of characters is reader expectations. Characters have to be active. Likeable. We have to cheer for them. We have to understand them. They have to be… perfectly formed and identifiable each in their own way. But the truth about real characters, as with real people, is that you don’t always like them, you don’t always agree with them, and you don’t always cheer for them, but they latch onto your heart in a way socially ideal characters don’t often do. These deep, messy humans in whom we see ourselves reflected are the ones, at the end of the day, we’d go into battle for.

Devin Madson Photo
Photo Credit: Leah Ladson
Devin Madson is an Aurealis Award-winning fantasy author from Australia. After some sucky teenage years, she gave up reality and is now a dual-wielding rogue who works through every tiny side-quest and always ends up too over-powered for the final boss. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.