The author photo appears on the back page or cover of a book and has a strange position in our medium. We have hundreds of pages at our disposal to influence the reader, but one photo to say, “And this is me.” But who do we present as “me”? It’s a picture, after all. You can be almost anyone you want to be in a picture. It’s not as if you’d have to keep that persona going even as long as an average dinner party. You could deck yourself out in tweed and a pipe and do your best Tolkien impression and no one would know any better. Judith Butler wrote about identity as a purely social construct with a large performative element – certainly we all know that there are expectations readers might have about who writes what genre. If we want to, we can defy or meet those expectations. Or we can just run a hand over our hair, slap the camera on a tripod, and call it a day.
These were the ideas I was playing with recently, but then The Daily Dot’s Aja Romano posted about sexism in speculative fiction, and one of her quotes was from Sean P. Fodera (who then threw an incredible tantrum over the insolence of someone publicizing his more disgusting forum posts), who wrote, regarding the excellent writer Mary Robinette Kowal:
“For a long time, her website featured an array of photos of her in a diaphanous white outfit, posing on a beach. No metal bikinis or such, but they were not innocuous writer headshots either. One of them, with her recumbent on the sand with legs exposed, made her somewhat attractive.”
Even if we disregard the specter of the disapproving Puritan in Goodman Fodera’s tone, that phrase “not innocuous writer headshots” springs out. It suggests that there’s a right way for the writer to present themselves, within acceptable boundaries, and that Kowal has transgressed beyond those lines.
Setting aside the blatant sexism in what Fodera is typing would be like trying to ignore rain during a downpour, but this isn’t a solely male-female issue, where female authors are the only ones under pressure. Consider the way that Fodera has also brought up the issue of attractiveness – women aren’t the only ones who are subject to the reader’s gaze. Every social science study conducted since the first professor had a useful grad student to serve as a confederate has shown that we like attractive people. We are more likely to respond positively to their ideas, to hire them for jobs, and possibly to also buy their books. When an author sorts through possible photos for the back jacket, is there also the subtle concern that if one is selected where the author looks particularly trollish, then there might be an ever-so-small impact on sales?
And wrapping itself together with all of those other issues – no writer is published overnight, and there’s no author who didn’t spend at least a few daydreaming moments considering what their picture would look like when that day of triumph finally arrived.
If you look on the inside cover of my books (which you certainly should – preferably after reading their contents), you won’t see an author photo. Or anywhere on this blog, actually. It was a decision made for the book, and I do think that it was the right one to try to give the series the best possible chance. Is it one I feel good about, though – that I’m not ever sure. Some days I feel one way, other days I feel another. But I will say this: when I was in high school, I read R. A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale series. There was no author photo, and there was a gender-neutralized name – and for a number of years I thought that R. A. Salvatore was a female author. That lack of the photo allowed me to project anything I wanted, and at that age I guess what I wanted was another female author on my shelf.
So what goes into an author photo? How do different writers view it? Joining me to tackle this question are eight wonderful other authors who couldn’t figure out a graceful way to say no when I asked them to participate!
- Jason Hough
Author photos are an interesting beast. They remind me of advertisements for Real Estate agents, which almost always prominently feature a glamour shot of said agent, for what reason I’ve never understood. I want to know how successful they are at selling houses. What does it matter what they look like? I asked this question of myself when my literary agent asked me for a portrait to include on her website. That was the first time in my career the author photo came up.
Despite my diatribe above, it’s understandable that people want to form a personal connection with their favorite authors, and knowing what they look like does help accomplish that.
When I signed my first book deal with Del Rey, one of the first things my agent said was “Go out and get a professional headshot taken.” I did so. Here it is:
It looks very “authorly” I suppose, and my friends all commented immediately that the only reason I’d have such a picture on my Flickr page was because I’d landed a deal (it wasn’t announced yet). I used the picture on my blog and in a few other places, but just before publication I changed my mind and went with this picture to go on the inside jacket of my books:
It’s not as serious, not so professional in composition and all that. My friends were pretty much evenly split on which to use when I posed the question. The main reason I picked this one is my 3 year old son took it, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to give the little dude a photo credit.
He took another picture of me later, and I’ve been using it since:
Which one is the “best”? Damned if I know. Is someone going to base their buying decision on what I look like? Sad to say, probably. But I don’t really think many people do this. If they did George RR Martin would never have sold a book. Sorry George, all due respect — you’re a stud and we love you! If anything his bearded, geeky glory is exactly what you’d want in a fantasy author!
I can say with some certainty that I never deliberately looked at an author’s portrait until I became an author myself. I never bothered to look at who published their book, either. These things didn’t matter to me as a reader. They are only things I think about now that I’m part of the club. Who published someones book matters when you’re an author. As far as their looks, well, it helps me recognize them when I go to conventions and want to introduce myself. That’s about it.
Do looks matter for authors? I’m walking a tightrope here but what the hell. I’m a balding middle-aged ginger white guy of decidedly average appearance. I’ve noticed in my short stint as an author that there are a few colleagues of mine (talking about the male authors here) who are smashingly handsome fellows. And, they all seem to be stunningly well connected and popular within the author community. There was a time when I felt very jealous of this, and attributed it all to their looks. But over time I’ve come to some new conclusions. First off, in my experience good looking people are often very, very confident. They almost can’t help it, I think. It comes with a lifetime of having people want to meet you, I suppose. Whatever the case, it is their confidence that makes them a magnet in social settings, not their looks. When you look at the broader landscape, the one common trait of any gravitational body in a social solar system is confidence. Good looks probably helps people become that way, but there’s plenty of other roads leading there. Success, for example. A keen sense of humor. Self-awareness. Shameless self-promotion. For some folks a little alcohol does the trick.
Do some people let physical appearance sway their opinion of an author? I suppose so. However if we’re going to call for the author portrait to be abolished because it places too much importance on looks, which don’t matter one whit when it comes to the quality of the novel in question, perhaps we should also ditch the author bio. Aren’t we also using that to sway opinion by telling readers where we live, where we studied, what career highlights we’ve had and all the rest? Do those things affect the quality of the story? If the book should stand on its own merits, surely this is also superfluous information.
But we won’t do that. We won’t do either. For some readers a personal connection to the author matters. Knowing what someone looks like makes them more real. Knowing where they come from and a little about their lives even more so.
I’ve never heard anyone admit to not buying a book because of the author’s picture. I did once see someone comment about me on twitter, saying “his bio is not doing him any favors” — apparently they’d decided my book must be bad because my past accomplishments were not impressive enough. Much like my looks, there’s not a lot I can do about that except chuckle and move on.
The proof is in the prose.
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- Delilah Dawson
Here is a confession: sometimes, I can’t go to sleep at night because I’m anxious about author photos and what to wear to cons and conferences. If you think that’s silly, then it’s probably because you’ve never read the hateful words strangers have written on the internet about your face, body, and clothes. As fantastic as it would be if authors were judged solely by their books, the image we present to the public and online eye can impact our careers, our friendships, our reviews, our sales– and, yeah, our sleep. I even blogged about it–with photos.
Here’s a little bit of my mental process:
I want to be seen as a competent professional. But I’m a weird geek who writes vampire smut, comics, and demon stories. I’m pretty, but I’m getting older, and I was bullied as a kid, so I’m shy and introverted, but I don’t want to seem stuck up. Too much makeup and I look like a clown. Too little and I’m a slob. I want to wear a costume, but will that make people doubt my abilities? I love my Catwoman, Leia, Hannibal, and NERD shirts, but I hate it when guys accuse me of being a fake geek girl; I don’t have the energy to fight it when I have a presentation to give. I don’t want to dress boring, but I don’t want to overdress, either. I would wear that cute corset, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m a prostitute and proposition me– again. If I wear a dress, the back of my legs will stick to the chair. If I wear cute shoes, the women will like me, but if the heels are too high, they’ll resent me. I’ll be sitting down, so if I wear something too low cut, guys will be staring down my shirt. *headsplode*
You asked about author photos, and I described public appearances, but it’s relevant. Why? Because author photos are FOREVER. The exact same problem described above, but on the internet FOREVER. Printed in the back of a book FOREVER. I just put up a new website, and I’ve already had people say that the photo doesn’t fit my brand, doesn’t look like me, doesn’t match the website, should be in costume, is too “fun” because it’s at the beach. But you know what? It makes me feel pretty and confident. When I see that photo, I remember that day. How strong and happy I felt, the scent of the ocean and the feel of warm sand between my toes. I am all these things. Happy and grinning in the sun. Dark and whimsical and goth. Geeky and weird and vulgar. Pretty and Southern and polite. How am I supposed to capture all that in a single photograph?
You can’t. You just pick the one that makes you smile when you see it instead of counting your flaws. And then you get back to writing.
And then you show people the outtakes from your first author photo shoot, because let’s face it: author photos can be pretty ridiculous.
- Django Wexler
When ML asked me to write something about my author photo, I realized I didn’t have a great deal to say. Mine comes from a photo shoot I did in New York with my mom, who is (conveniently) an ex-pro photographer and generally excellent camera person. She posed me outside the old ivy-covered stone church next to the house, and we took a bunch of pictures of me until we got one that looked reasonably dignified. (I use the undignified one as my Twitter avatar.) My decisions were limited to which black coat I should wear for the occasion.
Thinking about it, of course, not having to care too much about an author photo is another symptom of what John Scalzi called “life on easy mode”. As a white male upper-class American, my “just looking normal” is the default image of respectability. (Sort of. The DEFAULT probably looks a little less goofy.) So while I may not have much to say on the subject, I very much look forward to reading the other answers here, from people who had to put a lot more thought into it then I did.
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- Elspeth Cooper
So when it came to selecting an author photo, I didn’t have many pictures to choose from. A B&W family snap of laughing, chubby toddler-me wasn’t going to cut it, obviously, but the only other photos I had were in my wedding album (the momentousness of the occasion had persuaded me that it needed pictures). I cropped down one of the portraits and sent it off to my publisher. It wasn’t a studio shot, or me posed awkwardly at a desk trying to look authorly, but it was happy and natural, so I thought it would do.
It’s served me very well so far. Despite 21 years working in IT, widely regarded as a boys’ club, I’ve experienced very little in the way of misogyny in the workplace. As far as I know my appearance was never used to make judgements on either my competence or my worth as a human being. Because of that, it never even occurred to me that it might be a hazard I’d have to face in my new career.
So far, it hasn’t been. The male authors I’ve met have all treated me as a fellow professional, and I’d feel quite safe sharing the elevator with any one of them. But every few months there seems to be yet another story about women in this business being groped or creeped-on, or demeaned on the basis of their appearance. I read what had happened to Mary Robinette Kowal and then I looked at that photo of me in the off-the-shoulder silk gown, and I started to wonder.
Is it professional enough? Does it send the right message? Do I look too girly to be taken seriously or does it mischaracterise what I write as romantic fantasy? And the kicker: will it be used against me?
And then I thought about it a little more, and decided: to hell with all that. It’s me, take me or leave me. What I look like has nothing to do with how or what I write, and if my picture influences how people perceive me or my work, surely that says more about them than it does about me. Which is their problem.
Visit Elspeth Cooper
Oh, sure. It’s a photo and it’s of me, an author. So technically, yes, it’s an author photo. But it’s a picture my wife took of me while I was slightly drunk sitting in an airport bar in Wisconsin in the middle of winter a few years back. That one just happens to make me want to run and hide the least of any of the pictures of me out there.
Author photos are weird. They’re more than just a picture. They are image and brand, trademark and logo. At their core they’re marketing tools. But I’m never sure what exactly my author photo is supposed to be selling.
The easy answer is books, but I don’t think that’s entirely true, at least not directly. My picture has nothing to do with whether my book is any good or whether or not you will like it. I didn’t write it with my face no matter how drunk I might have been at the time.
When it comes down to it what it’s really selling is me. I’m not exactly comfortable with that. I’d rather you never know what I look like at all. Like everyone there’s too much about me I don’t like. Too much about me I’m afraid you might not like. I’m too fat, I’m too short, my nose is too crooked, my face is lopsided, I’m too hairy, my eyes are off-center, my forehead’s too big, my eyebrows are too bushy. The list goes on. And it raises troubling questions. Does the Me in my author photo convey the Me that you think it should? That I think it should? Do I look like a fantasy author? Or a crime writer? Or a serial killer in an ice cream truck prowling the streets for children like some modern-day Baba Yaga? What do any of those things look like, anyway?
And why do I care?
I care because I’m human and humans care about that sort of thing. I wish we didn’t, but we do. Like it or not we make decisions based on how people look every day. It’s so unconscious we rarely even know we’re doing it. It’s just how we’re wired. And I fear that whatever judgement you place on my looks is going to not just translate to my books, but be used to judge me as a person.
Stupid, I know, but there you have it. I don’t know who you are and don’t know me, but it’s there, anyway. I’m willing to bet some of you have something like that, too.
Whenever I look at that picture on a website or on a book it feels a little like I’ve turned to on-line dating out of a desperate need for validation. HERE IS MY PICTURE I HOPE YOU FIND ME PRETTY ENOUGH TO BUY MY BOOKS PLEASE GOD GIVE MY LIFE PURPOSE.
But of course that’s ridiculous. I don’t need a picture to show a desperate need for validation. That’s why I write books.
Visit Stephen Blackmoore
- T. Frohock
Photographs, like stories, are illusions. What you see in a photograph is a very stylized rendition of a person for all of a tenth of a second. Then that photograph is airbrushed and photo-shopped to make the person look a lot better than he or she normally does. My professional photograph in Miserere is merely one aspect of my character (my then-agent liked that particular photograph, because she said it captured the warmth of my personality). What you don’t see in that photograph is that my husband sat behind the photographer and joked with me to make me relax and laugh. So any warmth in that photograph is aimed at him, not you, sorry.
Illusions are funny things, what someone sees in a photograph is more telling than the actual picture. In other words, Mr. Fodera told us much more about himself than he did about Ms. Kowal. For example, Mr. Fodera obviously envisions something sexual when he sees women in “diaphanous white outfit[s]” on the beach.
To each his own. Personally, I think guys with dark hair sitting on motorcycles in torn jeans are sexy. Does that mean that we should portray Joe Hill as a slut because he didn’t opt for the “innocuous author headshot”?
Of course not.
However, let’s look at that picture for a moment. It is really a very sexualized pose for a man. There is Joe sitting on a vehicle that is associated with male virility, which is the male equivalent of being “recumbent on the sand with legs exposed.” The motorcycle is a TRIUMPH, another word associated with manly endeavors. His torn jeans expose his leg. His expression says, “I am one serious dude,” which is the male version of bedroom eyes, come hither, my love.
Or, is that what I’m reading into it?
It’s an illusion, you see. What I see in that picture tells you much more about me than it does about Joe.
The truth is probably much less lurid. The publisher indicated Joe needed a professional photo, the photographer asked him some questions, and VOILIA! Joe is on a motorcycle, looking appropriately badass as a horror writer should. Personally, I think the Wikipedia photograph of Joe reading from a book in a bookstore is, in all probability, a better representation of his personality.
The truth, quite frankly, is rarely what you see. In my case, I’d rather give you the illusion of my words and let you make your decisions about me based on my stories. Nothing more.
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- Mazarkis Williams
Well, this is an interesting question for me to answer since I have no author photo, and I think that too has its problems. Authors are personalities, and very often people like to attach a face to that personality. Without a face, there is added distance, but also some safety from being misjudged.
But even without photos, we see ourselves differently from how others see us: what we type in, or don’t, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Photos are just one more thing to decode. I don’t make a business of examining author pictures, but once in a while I’ll see one and wonder from my safe, faceless distance, what kind of choices were made in choosing that particular photo. Was it candid or calculated? Did the photographer or the author decide what to include? But never do I put any judgment to it, especially since my own photo is most definitely not out there. If I had one, I would want it to be arty, and convey intelligence, thoughtfulness, and perhaps gravity. But I have no idea whether it would be perceived in any of those ways.
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- Zachary Jernigan
I’m endlessly fascinated by appearance, and I always take a bit of offense when someone thinks admiring a person’s physical form is, by its nature, superficial. I like people (despite what you may have heard), and part of liking people is admiring their features. I don’t find everyone attractive on the level we typically think of when we say, “that’s an attractive person,” but I do find almost everyone to have physical appeal. Especially in person, during conversation, individuals — well, interesting individuals, anyway — have such a range of expression that it’s hard not to find something likable in the mix.
It’s normal for you to be curious about another person’s appearance, especially if that person is someone you admire (or who simply provides an entertaining experience). As time goes on and the world becomes ever more connected, the expectation will only grow that an author provides an image. Yes, even though it has no bearing on the content you’re reading.
Well, except it does. If you see an image of an author, you carry that into your reading, or it informs your reading afterward. You attach a measure of significance, automatically, to a person’s face. This person wrote this. Like it or not, unless you’re somehow the kind of person who attaches no value to physical appearance, you will let this change the way you look at what the author has written. Slightly or fundamentally, it will happen.
If you’re a hugely bigoted person with a small range of “acceptable” or “innocuous” ways a person can be represented photographically, then obviously you should stay off all social media lest it shatter your rosy, neutered view of all these slutty wordsmiths parading around in sheer outfits. Don’t let our society, which increasingly tells folks (I hope) that it’s okay to dress and celebrate their own particular beauty, destroy what might be perfectly enjoyable books!
Oh, how much risk there is in looking at people! Heaven forbid you should be momentarily struck by someone’s beauty or ugliness!
I got a few words for you, if you’re that small-minded: grow the fuck up.
Now, I’m not all that grown up, but you know what? I encourage authors (like all people) to learn to love themselves, and celebrate with others the joy in their faces, the excitement of a good photo taken. I encourage them to reveal themselves to be people, and not just some abstract, often idealized form known as an author. I don’t expect writers to hide their faces or to demure unless they want to — and if they want to, who gives a shit? I don’t need an author photo to love a book, and I surely don’t need one to dig the hell out of the person who wrote it. I have no idea what Mazarkis Williams looks like, but dammit do I like the hell out of Maz.
(Waitaminute! Same goes for you, ML!)
Goodness, I could go on forever on this topic, but I won’t. Suffice it to say — and finally get to the main question — I did put some thought into my author photo. I wanted to convey the fact that I don’t take myself seriously, all the while knowing what a huge display of privilege that was. I’m a man. I don’t have to worry that coming across as goofy will in any way invalidate me. I could choose to portray myself in nearly any way without repercussion.
Because, again, I’m a dude. I can post ridiculous crap like this and have people laugh and take my underlying seriousness and anger as just that — seriousness and anger. They validate me. I don’t get called a slut. There are no accusations of me shamefully using my body to garner attention. I got a lot of hits on that post, in fact. My intentions were read charitably. Anyone who didn’t think charitably of what I did remained silent. I didn’t receive hateful emails or passive-aggressive comments.
Tell me how many women, having done what I did, would receive so welcoming a response.
I’ll answer you. None. None of them would.
Any photo of an author — still, this late in the game, after all these proofs of our own prejudice; when we should be mature individuals, dammit! — reveals the underlying mechanics of privilege. It is a demonstration of how kneejerk our reactions are to appearance. More than anything, it is proof that we have a long way to go before we can say that sexism is not a problem in the science fiction and fantasy (and larger literary) community.
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Thanks so much to Jason Hough, Delilah Dawson, Django Wexler, Elspeth Cooper, Stephen Blackmoore, T. Frohock, Mazarkis Williams, and Zachary Jernigan! Have thoughts about author photos? Post below!
The final round of author chat is live at Leigh Bardugo’s tumblr! Check it out to discover which author all of us lie about having read! (hint: it rhymes with Lonathan Spanzen)
Have you enjoyed these four rounds of author chat? Of course you have (I think?)! After all, it was Django Wexler, Teresa R. Frohock, and Leigh Bardugo in all their awesome glory, with me bringing up the rear like an adorable little caboose! (aw, look at those amazing fantasy authors — they’re so nice to let M. L. Brennan play along) (I kid, of course — though if you want to have your mind blown by amazing fantasy this holiday season, check out The Thousand Names, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, and Shadow and Bone. They make great gifts, too! And you can toss on a copy of Generation V to make it over the hump into the free shipping)
We did this author chat to try to capture a little of that experience of going to a panel at a con, and seeing authors answer questions and have a bit of fun. But we wouldn’t be able to fully capture a panel without the final, most crucial part — audience participation!
Do you have a question you’d like the panel to answer? Post it in the comments, and over the next few days, we’ll sift through and find the ones that are the most awesome. Then keep your eyes peeled in January for Author Chat II: Fan Service.
I leave you with this final bit of awesome:
Did you miss any of the earlier rounds of Author Chat? If so, check them out here:
There are a lot of great things about cons. The booths, the artists’ alley, meeting new people, the cosplay – but one of my favorite things is being able to see panel discussions (it’s pretty fun to be on them, too). I love seeing the moderator ask a question, and seeing that question get handled by several different authors, each one adding something new and interesting to the conversation, and each following author riff on the answer of the previous author just a bit before bringing out their own point. It can bring up some really interesting insights, and also some extremely unexpected surprises, and it’s a format that I enjoy a lot.
So I was eating breakfast one morning and reflected that it would not only be quite a few months before my next con attendance but that there were authors who I was extremely fond of who I might never get a chance to be on a panel with. (yes, sometimes this is what I think about as I eat breakfast. Don’t judge me!)
And at that point I thought – wait a second. Surely the Internet should be able to solve this, just as I have been promised that it will solve every one of my other problems (most recently the problem of needing to do holiday shopping while also not wanting to change out of my pajamas). Which is how I decided to do my very own micro-panel – and I was fortunately able to convince three excellent fantasy writers to play along. We all came up with two questions for the panel, which we then answered one at a time in a very large group email. It was quite a lot of fun, and there are some really interesting topics and answers, so I hope that it will also be fun to read! We’ve broken the conversation into four portions – so today’s portion will be on this blog, and the later parts will be released every few days on the other authors’ blogs, with links posted in just about every crevice of social media that we have access to.
With no further ado, please join me, Django Wexler, Teresa Frohock, and Leigh Bardugo for Author Chat, Part One.
Q: When you were a kid, what was one movie moment or character that you think had a long-term impact on your writing?
ML Brennan: It was the owl from the animated movie The Secret of NIMH. He had those insanely creepy glowing eyes, there was hanging stuff all through his home, there were freaking *bones* littering the place, he kept eating those moths throughout the conversation, and there was that overhanging threat through the entire scene that he would at any point eat poor Mrs. Frisby, who couldn’t be tinier or more vulnerable compared to him. So the entire scene is on this knife-edge of possibility – will he eat this mouse who has come to see him, or will he give her the information she has asked for? Because at the same time that the owl is presented as this really monstrous and frightening creature (really different than how I was ever used to seeing owls before), he also is really wise and has useful information. It really made an impact on me, because the owl was terrifying, yet important, but at the same time the movie made it really clear that he wasn’t bad – or good. He was the owl, and he had no real affiliation – that he gave Mrs. Frisby the information she asked for wasn’t because he was nice, but because she showed up a useful time of day and he didn’t eat her. And Mrs. Frisby herself knew going in that she might get eaten – she didn’t have any trump card or insurance, she just took a huge risk to get what she needed to help her family. I haven’t seen that movie in probably twenty years at least, but I still really viscerally remember the impact that the owl had on me. (I also remember later, after reading the book, how pissed I was that the movie makes the resolution of the problem involve magic rather than mechanics, but I guess that’s a separate topic)
Also, I found a picture of that owl – guys, tell me that this isn’t the most freaking badass owl that ever appeared in film.
Django Wexler: Man, the Secret of NIMH was a really strange movie – terrifying by modern standards! I remember it scaring the crap out of me when I was little. For some reason there was a period in 70s and 80s when it was considered okay for animated children’s movies to be horrifying or traumatizing.
For my biggest writing influences, I’m going have to go a little astray and look to television instead of movies. In particular, I remember Babylon 5 (which I watched most of when it first aired, and then again on video) really changed my ideas of what TV storytelling, or storytelling in general, could be like. There are bits of that show (Vir’s final “meeting” with Morden, for example, or the fulfillment of Londo’s prophecies) that make it clear how well the arcs were structured in advance, and I was just in love with the idea of this big, deep world-building that slowly builds to the conclusion of an epic arc over the course of many shorter episodes. (There wasn’t much else like it on TV at the time! Things are much better now.) Most of the writing I did at the time was for RPG campaigns, and you can really see the influence if you got back and look at that stuff; my adventure notes are full of gradual revelations of ancient secrets and vague foreshadowing of future dooms.
Teresa Frohock: God, I’m old. My daughter loved The Secret of NIMH. I remember a little about Babylon 5, but I was an adult when that came on. (I remember waiting every week in anticipation of the next episode of the original Battlestar Galactica!)
If I had to pick one movie or story that really influenced me, it would be The Last Unicorn, an animated movie that I saw before I ever read Peter S. Beagle’s work. As an adoptee, the unicorn’s search for others like herself really resonated with me. The whole twist with Schmendrick, who really loved the unicorn and was just a little jealous of Lir and Amalthea, showed me how the subtle interplay of emotions can lead a story just as competently as a lot of action. There was adventure, and laughter, and love, and most importantly, regret. Nothing was sugarcoated and the ending wasn’t happy, but it made such elegant sense that I adored the movie. When I found there was a book, I devoured it.
I think the beauty of that story and the original animated version of The Little Mermaid (where the little mermaid actually turns to seafoam in the end) really taught me that effective storytelling doesn’t have to rely on non-stop action. The true action within a story occurs during the interplay of the characters. Everything else is flash and glitz.
Leigh Bardugo: Do you know what wigged me out the most about The Last Unicorn? Molly Grue’s response to the unicorn—this idea that there was an expiration date on when magic could make a difference in your life.
My pivotal movie moment has to be… Highlander. Yeah, I said it. We had pirated cable and I must have watched it a hundred times. I loved the flashbacks, the fight scenes, Sean Connery in velvet. Looking back, I’m like, “Why no lady immortals?” But at the time, it didn’t occur to me to feel locked out of the story. Of course there were lady immortals, and I was one of them, and I just had to wait on the Quickening. I suppose this is also the time to confess that I’ve cosplayed as the Kurgan. I own a skull helm.
Teresa Frohock: I’d totally forgotten Molly’s idea that magic didn’t last forever. I need to read the book again. There were just so many good things in that novel. 😉
Q: What are your feelings about seriously harming or even killing main characters?
ML Brennan: I think if you take that off the table, you can inhibit yourself. I think it can also become that old Star Trek issue – redshirts might die by the thousands, but you’re never that worried because you know that the A Team is going to get through the episode without a scratch on them. (a situation that I thought was delightfully built on in John Scalzi’s appropriately-titled Redshirts) That’s not to say that books where the main characters get off fairly unscathed throughout are not as good (I’ve enjoyed many books like that, for instance), but some of the books that have surprised and challenged me the most as a reader were the ones that did some serious damage to (or even killed) main characters.
In my series, the books are told from a first-person perspective, so it’s kind of a given that Fort has to live through each book. But when I write, I try my best to keep all options on the table. I might love writing Suzume, Prudence, or Madeline, but I want to keep the possibilities alive that bad things could happen.
What I’ve found most interesting about all of that was that when I was drafting my third book, I was telling the plot to both my agent and my editor. The plot involved the death of a major character – and my agent argued very strenuously against the death. My editor left the decision up to me, but did warn me that readers could react very negatively to the death of a major character. The manuscript is written, but the experience really showed me that it wasn’t just as simple as me making the decision – there was also the publishing aspect, and then the potential fan fallout. So there are really a lot of elements to it. (I actually read somewhere that Charlaine Harris had planned to kill one of her main characters, Bill, in her ninth book, but that the publisher pushed back so hard that she had to back down)
Django Wexler: I definitely agree with the Redshirts problem. If you’re writing a story in which people get hurt and killed a lot, but none of the important cast ever does, then the emotional impact of the fighting is lost. The actions of the main characters lose their meaning and significance – is it really brave to go and fight if you always come out okay, and can you really have a heroic self-sacrifice if some plot device always intervenes at the last moment to keep you alive? Worse, the readers catch on and begin to assume that the main cast will be fine, and any new characters are only there to be killed off for emotional oomph. (This can become a recurring “I will avenge my dead girlfriend/boyfriend/adopted kid/pet canary!” problem. After a while, it becomes clear that joining up with the main character is a deathtrap …)
(Aside: While it’s not the world’s greatest show, this is one thing The Walking Dead TV series gets right – they’re unafraid to off even long-running characters, which invests the show with a real sense of tension. “Contractual immunity” – i.e. the actor has a contract, so the character can’t die – really hurts drama.)
It’s trickier, as ML said, when you’re locked into a particular point of view. I think the secret is to make sure there are plenty of other characters that the protagonist and the reader care about, and to let them get hurt or killed when it would be appropriate and realistic for that to happen. It’s a tricky line to walk – that kind of thing is a powerful emotional tool, but you can’t overuse it or let the reader get the idea that you’re introducing characters JUST so you can kill them later.
Teresa Frohock: I think the trick here is that if that character’s death is part of the story, then yes, I definitely have no problem killing a main character. In the third book of the Katharoi series, I planned the death of some major characters–I mean, it’s a war, for God’s sake. People die in war, even people you like. I’m hoping that the events that lead up the deaths will feel organic and a part of the story.
I can’t tell you how much flack I’ve gotten over killing Father Matthew in Miserere. A few people were righteously angry over the fact that I’d created a likable character, then killed him … hey when you gotta go, you gotta go … seriously, I had no way to keep him from dying. Matthew was doomed from the opening sentence.
Overall though, I don’t believe that readers have a problem with seeing a major character die so long as the death fits the world and the story. Django talked about The Walking Dead and this is an excellent example of killing major characters as part of the story-line. Each time someone dies, the group dynamics take a radical shift. The deaths fit the world and the environment so nothing in the storytelling feels forced or unnatural.
I won’t kill a character for shock value or just to hook the reader into reading a sequel though. I think once I’ve used the death of a major character as a commercial plot device, then I’ve lost the reader’s respect. The same is true if I allow a character to live who should have died (see Father Matthew).
Readers know when they’re being manipulated. It’s not so much that a major character dies, it’s the fact that the readers feel manipulated and cheated.
Leigh Bardugo: I’m glad that you mentioned doing serious harm, because for me, that’s sometimes the more interesting choice. I like to take away the thing that the character believes defines him or her and then see what happens.
As for killing off characters, agreed on all fronts, particularly Teresa’s points re manipulating or cheating the reader. A death is like a declaration of love or any dramatic moment really—it has to feel earned. Even if the death is deliberately arbitrary (Whedon does this a lot—shrapnel! stray bullet! danger is everywhere!), I think the fallout has to be deeply felt. Otherwise, you’re just upping the body count and there’s a good chance the reader will begin to feel brutalized or simply stop caring. I don’t know. It’s easy to talk about these things in the abstract, but I just locked the third book in my trilogy and I worried quite a bit about striking a balance between the reality of war and narrative satisfaction. I still don’t know if I walked the line successfully.
Did you enjoy reading our conversation? Why not read some more – like our books?
Leigh Bardugo: The bestselling Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm can be bought now. The conclusion of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising will be published June 3, 2014. Learn more at http://www.leighbardugo.com.
Django Wexler: The Thousand Names is in stores now. The second in The Shadow Campaign series, The Shadow Throne will be published July 1, 2014, and Wexler’s middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library will be published April 15, 2014. Learn more at http://djangowexler.com/.