Monday, January 27, 2014

ML Brennan: Making the supernatural relatable

Deciding to write a book about vampires, kitsune, elves, and witches was the easy part. I love reading old fairy tales and historical critiques about what myths suggest about the culture they are formed from. Taking these supernatural creatures and altering them in a way that I thought was fun and interesting, then setting them up in an urban fantasy setting in Rhode Island? Easy day as a writer.

What’s more challenging is the next step as a writer, and that’s the part where the character must on some level be relatable to the reader. There’s nothing wrong with reading fantasy for pure escapism – spending an hour with a character who is enormously attractive, wealthy, strong, asskicking, and perfect in all ways. But as an author, I just don’t have much interest in writing those kinds of characters, because I feel like they don’t move beyond escapism and wish-fulfillment. I’ve read plenty of books with those kinds of protagonists – and enjoyed the hell out of a great number of them. But as a writer I’m going to have to really live in and inhabit this character that I’m writing for months, and I also want my readers to become attached to the character as well.

What drives attachment to a character? Shared experience, shared humanity, a sense that the reader can relate to the character. As a writer, part of this boils down to the old “write what you know” adage. But that adage can be taken much too literally. After all, I’m not a vampire. I’m not male. Yet my protagonist is both (fun fact: I get so many questions about “how could you write a male character” and none that ask “how could you write a vampire” – I wonder what that says when gender swapping was more shocking than species jumping), and I’m still saying “write what you know.”

Here’s how I can say that without experiencing cognitive dissonance. I know what it feels like to have your heart broken. I know what it feels like to be lonely. I know what it feels like to be afraid, or happy, or ambitious, or resentful, or have less money in my checking account than it costs to pay my rent. These are things that many other people know as well, and can relate to, which was why these were the things that I used to build my protagonist.

There are two topics of conversation that I think almost anyone past the age of eighteen can enjoyably get involved in. I call them The Crappy Jobs I’ve Had and The Shitty Places I’ve Lived. Think about it – haven’t almost all of us had that nightmare job, either when we were just scraping a few dollars together in high school or when we were struggling to make ends meet after college? And haven’t most of us also lived in at least one dive apartment where there were insect infestations, horrible landlords, and the sneaking suspicion that at least one of your neighbors was a drug dealer? Then once we’re on the other side of that, in steady work and in decent housing, don’t we love exchanging these stories? I can’t even say how many times I’ve heard the story of the house with the mold problem from one of my friends, but at least as many times as I’ve told him about the apartment with the upstairs neighbor whose cat’s urine rotted out the floorboards.

That’s why when I sat down to write my book, I made sure that my vampire protagonist was working at the kind of soul-sucking minimum-wage jobs that I suffered through when I first exited college with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. That also led directly to my protagonist’s living situation, which is a succession of terrible roommates in a crappy apartment. It made my protagonist have that edge of stress and desperation that made him relatable not only to me, but to my readers who also recognized that situation. He might be supernatural, with blood-related problems that most of us won’t face, but the day-to-day issues that he looks at strike a chord with me, and with readers. His girlfriend is cheating on him. He doesn’t get along with his family. He has less than twenty dollars in his wallet and a car that is falling apart. He faces these issue with as much humor and adaptiveness as he can muster, but that edge of fear remains.

To me, that felt natural in a way that a character with lots of money and a perfect life didn’t.

To win a free copy of my latest book, Iron Night, tell me about either your worst job or worst apartment in the comments! Two copies will be given out!

***The winners are Susan B. and Barbara E.!  Please email with your mailing address and full name!  Thank you.***


traveler said...

A job that was not long ago was an experience which I don't regret even though it involved having my eyes glued to a computer for 8 straight hours and feeling like a total wreck from top to bottom when the day ended.

Barbara E. said...

When I was a teenager I worked at a dairy store handing out samples of their fruit punch, etc. This was a working dairy farm with a store that sold dairy products, as well as a few other staples, so the cows were nearby in all their stinky glory. The only good thing I can say about it, is there were cute young boys that worked in the store that I got to flirt with.

Eli Yanti said...

When I work with my uncle, many people already said it's not nice working with our relation

erin said...

When I was a teenager I worked for a week as an assistant for a guy who was uber rich and paralyzed. He was sooo demanding and spoiled. I couldn't stand it. I gave my notice and he was all like "you have to stay until I find someone to replace you, so you need to give me a month". I said absolutely not and he threw a bowl at me. It wasn't that he was paralyzed it was that he was a massive jerk. Sooo glad I came to my senses! I felt guilty up until the moment he thew the bowl at me :) Congrats on the newest release!

Mary Preston said...

The first apartment that I lived in after I left home was just so disgusting. It may have been close to work, but other than that it had nothing to recommend it. The windows were painted shut, so no fresh air got it. The mould had taken over. The local winos slept in the alley between the two apartment buildings. I'm surprised I survived really, but I was very young, naive & it was all one big adventure.

petite said...

Working for a egotist and a dictator is demeaning and horrible. I stayed at the job, clerical as long as necessary and left with no regret.

Susan B. said...

My worst job was in an Italian bakery. I fell in love with cannolis, napoleons and Italian bread. I gained 40 pounds in no time flat!