How Not To Write a Book: Marked Part One–On Writing Protagonists

Hello, I’m a unicorn. Rage! Rage bubbling forth, tugging at the strings of my sanity, dragging me further and further into the depths with every word. Looming and rising, this book is a special kind of evil. The kind devised by Eldrich abominations themselves. Abandon all hope ye who enter here, lest you be struck with the anger yourself, for this book is all knowing, all consuming. It is evil incarnate. It is everything wrong with YA literature in one neat package, and how not to write a book. This is the House of Night series. A book series so bad, it has already driven at least three book critics to an unstoppable rage, and is about to drive a fourth. It is–

Whoah, whoah, whoah. Take a deep breath Kirin.

*gasp*

Feel better?

A little. Look, this book is bad. It’s really bad. It’s so bad that I take back anything I’ve ever said that makes fun of Twilight, because this book makes Twilight look like Dracula when it comes to vampires. This book is so bad that I never want to see anything like it again. So, without further adieu, here is a little segment I like to call How Not To Write a Book. For part one, we’ll talk about writing protagonists, featuring the worst female lead since Bella Swan, Zoey Redbird.

Zoey is the epitome of a Mary Sue. Is she exotic? Yes. Is she beautiful? Yes. Is she virginal? Yes. Does she have an unhappy home life? Yes, and I’ll get to that one in a minute. Is she super special among her peers? Yes. Do all the people who meet her automatically love her? Yes. Do boys fall over her? Yes. Are those who don’t love her vilified? Yes. Is her Goddess given specialness earned? No, absolutely not, because Zoey is a terrible person with almost no redeemable qualities.

Let’s talk about that terrible home life for a second. Is she living in poverty? Are her parents abusive? No and no. The worst part about her life, aside from her “tragic inability to fit in” is that she doesn’t like her step dad because he is a fundamentalist People of The Faith *cough* Christian *cough*. What else did he do wrong? Practically nothing, from what I saw. He allowed for her mom to quit a dead end job, got them out of money troubles, and allowed her to have a car. Her mother also really seems to care about him. To me, it looks like he’s just going about acclimating to her family the wrong way and that his beliefs conflict with who his adopted daughter is. I understand that it’s hard to have one absentee father and one father who you don’t like, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that she whines nonstop about it, and has nothing nice to say about anyone in her family except for her jerk of a grandmother. She even slut shames her own unnamed sister, which, believe me, I’ll get to soon. This is what she says in an argument with her mother:

“Did you know that your oldest daughter has turned into a sneaky, spoiled slut who’s screwed half the football team?”*

Go back and read it again. Feeling angered yet? Believe me, there’s plenty more where that’s come from. Speaking as the middle sister of three, this angers me. We don’t even know her name, just that she has committed the crime of being Barbie-like, promiscuous, and trying to convince her younger sister to participate in something the older loves. That is all. Practically all of her family  are reduced to these caricatures. This doesn’t make Zoey look like a martyr, it makes her look like a spoiled brat. When writing a character with a bad home life, actually give him or her a bad home life. Or, if it’s a home life like Zoey’s, give the characters more depth so that we see that the narrator is unreliable. That would be realistic. There are teenagers who deal with this sort of thing, and they usually learn later on that things are not how they are perceived. For the latter, do not, under any circumstance, vindicate him or her in their hatred of their parents. It will just annoy the reader, because they keep telling themselves that there is more depth than what we were just shown, but none appears. You’d also be wasting a perfectly good character arc. In Harry Potter, would the Dursleys have seemed as horrible if we had simply been told that Harry hates them and not seen for ourselves their cruel treatment of Harry. Instead, we’re shown, over the course of several chapters, that the Dursleys make Harry’s life miserable.

That’s not all though, because Zoey is also a bully who  has the ability to insult everyone. This is her treatment of an outcast named Elliot.

Oh (great) that annoying redheaded Elliot kid was slouching against the wall kicking sawdust at the floor. He raised enough dust to make the girl standing close to him sneeze. She threw him a dirty look and moved a few steps away. God, did he irritate everyone? And why couldn’t he use some product (or perhaps a comb) on that nappy hair?

I drank blood—that horrid Elliot kid’s blood—and I liked it!

What did Elliot ever do to her? Nothing. He doesn’t even speak to her. All he does is make one homophobic comment, and that’s it. This kid is ostracized not just by her, but by literally everyone, including teachers. As for added bonus, here’s her reaction to him dying.

“No one liked Elliot, and somehow I think that makes it worse” Stevie Rae said. “It was weirdly easier with Elizabeth. At least we could feel honestly sorry that she was gone.”

“I know what you mean. I feel upset, but I know I’m really upset because I saw what can happen to us and now I can’t get it out of my mind, and not upset about the kid being dead.”

 

Okay, I admit that I hadn’t liked Elliot—no one had. The kid was annoying and unattractive (and his ghost or whatever seemed to be carrying on those traits) but I wasn’t glad he’d died.

I like how she just calls him annoying and ugly, and not a homophobic jerk. Great to see she has her priorities straight. Do I really need to say what’s wrong here? Don’t have your characters be bullies, or if you do, have them be called out for it. Do not make the object of your character’s dislike be cannon. You read right, all of these horrible opinions on a character who doesn’t even share a line of dialogue with Zoey turn out to be true.

This character’s cattiness knows no bounds. No one is safe, not even her best friends. For example, Kayla has been her best friend since third grade, but as soon as Zoey finds out that she is dating a boy named Heath, who Zoey said on multiple occasions is not her boyfriend, she gets angry.

Her mean look turned startled and then flattened out to mean again, and I suddenly couldn’t help but compare her to Stevie Rae, who, even though I’d only known for a couple days, I was absolutely, totally sure she would not ever go after my boyfriend, whether he was an almost-ex or not.

And threatens:

“Kayla, if you don’t shut up, I’ll fly down there and suck every last bit of blood from your cow body!” I spit the words at her.

I like Stevie Rae, Zoey’s room mate’s, reaction even better though:

“Oh, and then Kayla, my ex-best friend, made it obvious that she’s after Heath.”

Stevie Rae gasped. “Slut!”

Again, Kayla is her best friend since the third grade, and Zoey turns on her at the drop of a hat for stupid reasons. What’s even better though, is that Stevie Rae, who doesn’t even know Kayla, automatically agrees with Zoey. But even Stevie Rae, the friend who does nothing but worship the ground Zoey stands on, is not safe. Behold:

“The girl twanged so bad she sounded like an ad for a trailer park.”

“…but Stevie Rae (bless her little bumpkin heart)…”

This is her “best” friend. Funny, I thought that friends weren’t condescending towards one another, but, once again, the writers are so busy making Zoey look superior that she just looks like a jerk. Her behavior towards the mean girl at school is even worse though. Aphrodite, the resident Queen Bee, has visions telling of future tragedies. These visions are implied to be extremely painful. This is our charming heroine’s reaction to seeing a person in obvious pain.

Aphrodite was having a vision. She probably felt it coming on and hidden in an alcove so no one would find her and she could keep her info about the death and destruction she could prevent to her hateful self. Cow. Hag.

When it comes to characters like this, a little empathy goes a long way. She shows absolutely no empathy for a person who’s gift forces her to watch people die and causes her a lot of suffering in the process. This could have easily been a moment to humanize our protagonist. If she had, at any point, said that she felt a little sorry for Aphrodite, then the audience might hate her a little less. Otherwise, she is no better than her enemy.

The thing is, she lets the hate for Aphrodite become all consuming. For example, in Spanish class, they had to write about their likes and dislikes, and

I tried not to scribble things like me gusta Erik…and no me gusta el hag-o Aphrodite. Okay, I’m sure  el hag-o is not how you say “hag” in Spanish, but still.

That’s an impressive amount of hate for someone she’s literally met about three days ago. Even Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy’s rivalry didn’t get so bad that Harry had to restrain  himself on writing about how much they dislike each other during class assignments. You can have characters be rivals and outright hate each other, but please make it realistic. Most people aren’t so consumed by their hatred that the imbue it in everything they do. And usually the ones that do, end up with their lives destroyed.

Says the girl who’s devoting an entire blog post to her hatred of the protagonist.

My point still stands. Zoey is just a little ball of hate. With every vapid thought, a new group is unecessarily insulted. For example:

Dancers

Her body was tiny, and the way she stood reminded me of those girls who obsessively take dance class so that even when they’re not in ballet, they stand like they have something stuck way up their butts.

She’s talking about the equestrian teacher, by the way. Was it necessary that she mentions this? No.

Pamela Anderson

[Aphrodite’s smile] was as fake and cold as Pamela Anderson’s humongously huge boobs

This sentence is redundant, dumb, misogynistic and redundant.

Christians People of the Faith

Within thirty minutes our house would begin to fill up with fat women and their beady-eyed pedophile husbands.

When I’d read the previous chapter, I began to sympathize with Zoey for a split second. Then I read this, and was back to disliking her.

Girls Who Wear Heavy Makeup

I lined them with smoky black shadow that had little sparkly flecks of silver in it. Not heavily like those loser girls who think that plastering on black eye liner makes them look cool. Yeah right. They look like scary raccoons.

This is yet another example of drive by misogyny. You’ll find a lot of it in the book. It serves no purpose except to make us hate Zoey.

Mini Corn?

…those mini corns that are so confusing, and don’t even taste like corn. (What exactly are they? Baby corn? Midget corn? Mutant corn?)

I’ll just let the stupidity of this line speak for itself. And the coup de grace…

People With Eating Disorders

She wasn’t thin like the freak girls who puked and starved themselves into what they thought was Paris Hilton chic. (“That’s Hott” Yeah, okay, whatever Paris).

I’m not an expert on eating disorders, but I know this: it’s not something to make light of. This is something real people go through and this is just sickening. As You’re Killing Us, the website I linked earlier in the post puts it, these are medical and psychological disorders, not something the “freak girls” do for fun. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are not jokes. There are probably people reading this book who have suffered from these disorders, or know someone who has, and they sure don’t appreciate the label “freak girls.” This is not okay.

There is just no reason for these awful digs at people. There is no reason to to insult these groups, as well as others, including goths, emos, people with intellectual disabilities, people who are overweight, and women, oh great Krypton, women. I’ll get to that in the next post. When you write people, though, don’t, please, for the love of Hera, don’t have your character insult everyone, or again, have them be disliked or called out for it. This is not how you endear yourself to the audience.

Now, let’s talk ego for a second, because Zoey is nothing if not egotistical.

What she didn’t say is that I’m not just lucky, I’m “special” with my weird colored Mark. Which reminded me…

“Stevie Rae, why haven’t you asked me about my Mark? I mean, I appreciate you not bombarding me with questions, but all the way up here everyone who saw me stared at my Mark. Aphrodite mentioned it almost the second we were alone. You haven’t even really looked at it. Why?”

I like how she whines about how hard it is to be special one moment, and then in the next is asking why her new room mate isn’t acknowledging her specialness. All must bow to Zoey, the perpetual angst machine. She, of course, flaunts the Mark anyway, choosing to, in her own words, “let them gawk”. Ego is a wonderful flaw, but it’s just that, a flaw and there has to be something else there to be liked. Harry Potter has a decent sized ego, being the Chosen One, the youngest person to ever play Quidditch, and the one to defeat Voldemort, but he’s often proven to be wrong about people and called out for his actions. Characters who are egotistical have to be humbled throughout the story in order to create a character arc. Let’s use a non-Harry Potter comparison for a second.

In the Royal Ranger, the last book in the Ranger’s Apprentice series, Maddie is a spoiled and rebellious princess. Her parents are at their wits end, so they send her away to be trained as a King’s Ranger. She still makes mistakes, such as being rude to a chef and getting drunk at a party, but over time, she learns humility and selflessness. That is a really good character arc.

In this book, we have no character arc for Zoey. She starts out insufferable, vapid, and egotistical, and her ego only grows with every undeserved gift from her goddess and person who automatically loves her. If anything, she’s even worse by the end. She’s has abilities that are practically unheard of, but she does absolutely nothing to earn them.

I will give them this though, she does sound like a particularly horrible teenager, but the thing about teenagers is that, as a sub species, we are horrible creatures. We’re insufferable, melodramatic know-it-alls who think we have the world figured out when we don’t. But as Plato said “I only know that I know nothing.”

Wasn’t that Socrates?

Exactly. As writing a teenager goes, we’re not very smart, but we aren’t complete buffoons. We know right from wrong, and we eventually come of age. You have to write in a little maturity, and give them an arc that shows that the world is not how they thought. You can have a character like Zoey, but you need to add depth to other characters and make her less horrible over the course of the book. If you do, readers  will want to return to the series and watch her grow from someone who makes a five year old look mature into more of an adult. All I ask is for writers to have the seeds of growth begin to germinate in the first book.

Next post, we’ll be talking about sexism, bigotry, and writing diverse casts coming from the WASPiest of all White Anglo Aaxon Protestants.

How will Kirin deal with this one? Tune in next post to find out. Same unicorn time, same unicorn channel!

*All of the block quotations in the post are thankfully not my own. They, and this book belongs to St Martin’s Griffin’s publishing company, and PC and Kristin Cast.

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