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The Evolution of Middle-Grade Fantasy and Television


NOTE: I drafted this on my computer while I had power at a local café, but I’m posting it from home on my cell phone. As a result, some of my formatting may have gotten messed up. If so, I apologize: I’ll fix it as soon as I have power and Internet at home.

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of cartoons. Thundercats, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Inspector Gadget…the list goes on. Thanks to Netflix, I’ve started re-watching many of these shows, but I find that it is hard to re-capture my childhood appreciation. Most did not age well (or maybe I haven’t), but it is somewhat saddening to see stories I loved as a kid come off as puerile now. Interestingly, the books I read as a child do not suffer from the same problem. Why are the shows I watched at eight or nine unwatchable now, but the books I read at the same age still enjoyable? Have I just become some sort of egg-headed curmudgeon (obviously I have, but is that the cause?), or is there something different about these stories that affects their longevity?

Since Hurricane Irene knocked out our power for the last couple of days, I’ve had nothing to do but think about this while twiddling my thumbs by candlelight. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: what sets timeless middle-grade fiction apart from the cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s is the evolution of character and moral ambiguity.

The Quest Structure and Character Evolution in Middle Grade Fiction

Much of the middle-grade fantasy I read as a child (Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time Quintet, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising) relied on the standard portal/quest structure. The youthful hero/ine has to leave home, find something, and return.

A screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender showing Zuko.

Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, via Wikipedia

Their physical quest mirrors an evolution of their characters. As they progress through the various stages of their adventure, the characters are naturally changed by their experiences. Edmund Pevensie, in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, starts as a resentful, selfish child. His exposure to the White Witch’s evil changes him, as do his attempts to earn his siblings’ (and Aslan’s) forgiveness. At the end of the book, bratty little Edmund Pevensie ultimately becomes “Edmund the Just.”

In Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, Taran learns that adventure is not the rollicking good time he supposes, and that heroes must make difficult choices.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg develops self-confidence and self-value through realizing that although she lacks her siblings’ more obvious gifts, her capacity for love ensures a central place within her family.

While adult readers might deride the portal/quest fantasy structure as trite, its ability to harmonize the characters’ emotional journey with their physical adventure continues to make it resonate. The key to that resonance, particularly for young readers, is how compelling the characters are. If the characters are uninteresting, no kid will ever enjoy the book. If those characters do not change, then young readers will rapidly outgrow the story (if they ever get into it at all).

Character Evolution in Cartoons

This kind of character evolution is distinctly absent from cartoons of the ’80s. At the time, cartoons were often made to sell toys, and by their very nature were more open-ended: the writers had to keep the story going until the show got cancelled. This presents its own storytelling challenges, and as a consequence, each episode tended to be a self-contained story arc, while the series as a whole had only the loosest overall structure. Typically a shows’ latter seasons – when the creators saw their series nearing the end of its viability – would often feature multi-episode or season-spanning plots which the creators hoped would finish a story. Yet despite this “innovation” in storytelling, each episode still needed to be self-contained, and characters never evolved greatly from one episode to the next. The Donatello we meet in the first episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the same Donatello ten seasons later: his experiences over the ten years of show continuity have not introduced any changes into the character’s personality or values.

When we look at more modern cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender, we see an entirely different structure at work. First and foremost, the story is no longer open-ended. The show’s creators set out to tell a story in three parts. There was never an intention to keep the show going through ten years of storytelling. Avatar The Last Airbender is similar to much middle-grade fiction in that it retains a quest structure at its macro-level and focuses on an over-arching conflict between our heroes and a “Dark Lord” villain. However, as in all cartoons, each episode remains a self-contained adventure within the confines of the broader story.

I believe that this innovation is enormously significant in terms of televised animated storytelling. Thanks to its structure, Avatar The Last Airbender is able to introduce character arcs that parallel the story’s plot arc. Over the story’s three seasons, we can watch Aang mature and take on his responsibilities as the Avatar, Sokka grow into the capable warrior he dreams of being, and Katara master water-bending and come to terms with her feelings for Aang. Each of the principal characters gradually grows and changes over the course of the show’s three seasons, which ultimately makes the series’ conclusion all the more satisfying.

Villainy in Middle-Grade Fiction and Cartoons

Another key difference lies in how “classic” cartoons portray their villains. The portal/quest fantasy has often been mocked for its stereotypically irredeemable “Dark Lord” (for a hilarious send-up, I strongly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel). And both middle-grade novels and cartoons feature this trope.

The Dark Lord’s goals tend to be suitably grandiose: take over the world/universe/whatever. But while the Dark Lord is portrayed as irredeemable and morally abhorrent, our heroes rarely face him until the final battle. Instead, their direct opposition usually comes from the Dark Lord’s lackeys, who are more complex characters serving the Dark Lord for their own (less inscrutable) reasons. Their goals are more localized: gain temporal power, get the respect they think they deserve, etc.

Whether it is Alexander’s Queen Archen, Cooper’s Walker, or Lewis’ Edmund Pevensie, the Dark Lord’s helpers are shown to actively make choices that align themselves with evil. Unlike the Dark Lord, their evil is never a given: they choose it for themselves. But in “classic” cartoons, the Dark Lords’ lackeys are just as irredeemably evil as their master. Whether we are talking about the Thundercats’ Slythe, the Decepticon Starscream, or Cobra’s The Baroness, the front-line villains have no depth; their motivations are rarely explored.

Moral Ambiguity in Today’s Cartoons

Fast forward twenty years, and you find an entirely new generation of cartoons, like Avatar The Last Airbender and the Cartoon Network’s reboot of Thundercats. Today, the irredeemable evil of the villain and the unquenchable goodness of the “good guys” is far more flexible.

Consider the rebooted Thundercats: in the first episode, we learn that the Thundercats have been repressing the dogs and lizardmen for generations. While our hero, Lion-O might oppose this level of repression, “the good guys” are generally depicted as racists. Or consider Avatar The Last Airbender. In the first episode, we learn that the Fire Nation has waged a century-long war of subjugation against the other nations, slaughtering an entire race (the Airbenders) in an unprecedented genocide. Within the first season, though, we learn that both this genocide and the war-torn century are a result of the Avatar (theoretically our hero) running from his responsibilities.

None of the “classic” cartoons from the ’80s would ever have explored a theme as morally ambiguous as Aang’s rejection of responsibility. Instead, each of these shows had to end with a moralistic “lesson” portrayed through the dénoument: remember those “knowing is half the battle” sequences at the end of GI Joe episodes? Such an externally-imposed mandate makes morally ambiguous storytelling difficult, if not impossible.

But middle-grade fiction has always had this type of moral ambiguity. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie betrays his siblings to the White Witch in exchange for promises of power and Turkish Delight. More recently, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a thief and kidnapper who performs morally abhorrent acts with (it turns out) noble intentions. Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm wrestle with the right-and-wrong of trapping all magical Everafters in a small rural town, and their friend is the Big Bad Wolf – a villain struggling with his past crimes. Susan Cooper’s Walker shows us that the “good guys” might not always do good, and that they too can betray – or seemingly betray – their friends. None of this even touches upon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with the moral ambiguity of Snape, Dumbledore, and Tom Riddle.

Avatar The Last Airbender probably offers us the most powerful example of how contemporary cartoons can treat villainy: when the series opens, Prince Zuko is the heroes’ primary opposition, and we watch him hunt the Avatar with intense zeal. However, by the end of the first season we understand that Zuko struggles through his relationship with his father (Fire Lord Ozai, the “Dark Lord” of the series) and with his own moral compass, personified by his Uncle Iroh. While Zuko represents the primary threat against the heroes, he is forced him into chasing the Avatar, and though we may not agree with his motives we at least understand them. His portrayal as an almost-sympathetic character makes his evolution that much more satisfying, as over the course of the three seasons we watch him gradually change from being the Dark Lord’s lackey to being one of the story’s principal heroes.

What are the Implications for Children’s Storytelling?

I think Avatar The Last Airbender, with its moral ambiguity and even-handed character arcs makes for innovative children’s storytelling, irrespective of medium. Avatar The Last Airbender’s treatment of Prince Zuko would be the equivalent of Queen Archen or the Horned King switching sides, and I have not seen much middle-grade fantasy take moral ambiguity to such lengths (though Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy – which may or may not be considered middle-grade – comes very close, and Joseph Delaney tries for it in The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch). The creators of the Thundercats reboot openly discuss wanting to make a darker, more cinematic story than the original cartoon (although Cartoon Network’s Friday at 8:30pm timeslot for the show might suggest they are aiming for an older audience). Personally, I think all of this represents an opportunity for writers of middle-grade and cartoons.

The success of Avatar The Last Airbender proves that the middle-grade audience enjoys complex storytelling, with extended character arcs and moral ambiguity. While some might say that shows like that are “too much for kids,” I could not disagree more: by blending childish adventure with more serious storytelling, they are doing what children’s literature has always done: helping kids develop a vocabulary with which to internalize and articulate a morally complex world.

In a real sense, I think this represents the gradual accrual of wisdom. If – thanks to more morally ambiguous middle-grade fiction or morally-challenging cartoons – kids are able to recognize, understand, and internalize a more complex world, then I think this can only be good. Doesn’t it suggest that kids are growing wiser sooner? And from a more crassly commercial standpoint, it also opens up “children’s” stories for an audience entirely outside of its intended demographic.

Who says grown-ups can’t enjoy good kids’ stories, anyway?

Recommended Blog Posts Works Mentioned
If you enjoyed this blog post, here’s a list of others that are on related subjects which you might find interesting:

Since I talk about a lot of different authors and titles in this post, here’s a list for your enjoyment. I’ve included some titles that don’t get mentioned directly, but which you might find fun/interesting:

Books:

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (part 2 of 3): Episodic Plots and Pacing


NOTE! This is the second in a three-part series on writing episodic genre series. The previous installment discussed the episodic hero, while the third installment (planned for Tuesday) will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

This past Tuesday, I wrote about how episodic heroes are constructed in contemporary science fiction and fantasy series. While an episodic series relies on that hero, it is each individual book’s plot that keeps the reader turning pages. A good episodic plot will avoid formulaic writing, while providing an escalation in tension so that the reader keeps turning pages. The key to this is to establish momentum, and as the series progresses to vary the structure of each book’s plot. This keeps the reader interested in the book they’re holding in their hands right now, while the hero’s emotional journey (discussed in the next installment) keeps them buying the next book.

Pacing: Hitting the Ground Running

By leaving the character’s backstory off-stage, episodic books typically open with the hero actively starting the adventure. This is a page taken right out of the detective novel playbook. When we first meet Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, we find her turning down work from a shadowy vampire organization. We first encounter Ray Lilly traveling to his latest case, or Harry Dresden getting a job. Episodic series sprinkle the hero’s backstory here and there, but no time is wasted by delving narrative-style into the hero’s psyche or providing an infodump on “what-came-before”. Episodic series hit the ground running, and they tend not to let up until the mystery is solved, the monster is slain, and the hero can put his feet up.

Middle-grade novels especially establish the stakes early on (often on the first page!). I strongly recommend reading middle-grade episodic novels (like The 39 Clues series) to find some tricks on how to establish stakes and simultaneously establish the hero’s characterization. From conversations I’ve had with children’s book editors, the speed with which readers are drawn into the story is one of the most important characteristics they look for. Adult episodic series, with their tendency towards functional prose and page-turner status, can learn much from the pacing techniques used by children’s authors.

The Shape and Structure of Episodic Plots

Most episodic series rely on mysteries for their plot structure. Many employ the classic mystery plot: clear identification of the mystery, broadening suspicion, a sub-plot intrinsic to the hero’s emotional arc, discovery that the hero has been on the wrong track, re-focusing of the hero on the right track, explanation, climax and denouement. This type of plot may seem a bit cliched, but the practical reality is that if it worked for Agatha Christie, it’ll work for people writing today. The originality and inventiveness of the individual authors shines through in how they flesh out these bones to create their books.

Urban fantasy series like The Dresden Files or the Twenty Palaces novels rely on a combination of characterization and world-building to enrich their basic plots. Paranormal romances like the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the later Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books combine mystery plotting with the techniques of romance. Episodic adventure series like Artemis Fowl or Vlad Taltos invert traditional tropes (criminal vs sleuth, commit a crime vs solve a crime).

The Sense of Escalation

As the series progresses, building a sense of escalation becomes critical. Think of it this way: if the hero saves the universe in book one, what’s he going to do in book two? Many episodic series avoid this pitfall by focusing the plot on rather narrow concerns: if an epic hero saves the world, an episodic hero is more likely to save an individual. By keeping the scope focused, it makes it easier to escalate the stakes as the series progresses.

With her experience writing children’s books, Kate Griffen does an excellent job escalating the stakes across her Matthew Swift novels. In the initial installment (A Madness of Angels) Matthew Swift is focused first and foremost on his own survival. He is looking out for Number 1, and if others get swept up in his fight for survival that is their problem. In the second book (The Midnight Mayor) Swift has the (magical) mayoralty of London dumped in his lap, and he must deal with the consequences. At stake is the entire city of London and England itself.

Connolly uses a similar tactic to equally good effect: in the first Twenty Palaces novel (Child of Fire), the primary stakes are the hero’s life. Sure, there’s a town involved but Ray Lilly is focused on his own survival. In the second book (Game of Cages), his focus shifts to that of the town where a ravenous predator has escaped. What makes Connolly’s execution so strong is the unity he achieves between the explicit escalation of the stakes in the plot, and the escalating tension/stakes on Ray Lilly’s emotional journey (more on this in the next installment).

This kind of thematic and tactical escalation across books in the series can also tie into the character’s experiential growth: if the inexperienced hero can do something, it stands to reason that as their capabilities and understanding grow, so too will the stakes they fight for. The Harry Potter novels, themselves straddling the fence between epic and episodic, manage this experiential escalation very well.

The Danger of Formula and Using a Change-Up to Avoid It

The danger in all of this is that a plot model that works for the first, second, and third book in the series may seem formulaic and dull by the fourth, and fifth book in the same series. This is a point where the best episodic writers introduce what I call a “change-up”, a device which imbalances the hero’s routine and changes the plot structure of the books.

Different authors employ different change-ups: Steven Brust took away Vlad Taltos’ fortune, profession, and family by the fifth book. Jim Butcher introduces varying changes into Harry Dresden’s personal life (roommates, family members, etc.) while weaving strands for a super-plot that ties into Harry’s backstory and extends across the series.

By introducing such new elements, or by subverting the formulas employed in the earlier books, the plots can remain fresh for long-time readers and the momentum can be maintained throughout the series. But to be effective, the change-up has to do more than just intensify the predominant theme. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse novels are centered around romantic relationships. The characterization of Sookie represents the series’ greatest strength, with an iconic and engaging character and a distinct narrative voice. But as the series progresses, Harris attempts a change-up by complicating these romances through the introduction of new paramours and the removal of old flames. Because the books were already centered around relationships, the change-up rings flat and fails to build a sense of increasing stakes. As a consequence, the books rely upon the reader’s prior investment in the character and the world of the series. In Harris’ case, this gamble might work due to the audience’s strong emotional involvement with Sookie. But it is a big risk to take.

Plot versus Emotional Arc

This discussion of plot is centered around one book, within the context of a broader episodic series. The defining characteristic of episodic series is that each installment stands alone, and in order for that to work, each installment’s plot must stand alone. However, it must balance its independence with the foreshadowing and references necessary to link subsequent books and preceding installments. The key to this, I believe, is the hero’s emotional changes over the course of the series. This emotional development is not confined to any one book, and it represents the glue that binds the books to each other. The next installment (Tuesday) will focus on this.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for the third and final installment which focuses on using the hero’s emotional arc to keep readers engaged across books in the series.

Writing an Episodic Genre Series (Part 1 of 3): Episodic Heroes


I recently had the pleasure of reading the first two books in Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces series, and this got me thinking about the nature of episodic science fiction and fantasy. By episodic series, I’m thinking a four, five, ten book series where each book is a standalone story where the series’ principal character goes on whatever type of adventure is typical for that character. Think books like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. How are these kinds of episodic books constructed? What makes them tick?

NOTE! This is the first in a three part series of posts. This post is focused on the episodic hero. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on the episodic plot, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the hero’s emotional journey.

Epic vs Episodic: What’s the difference?

Science fiction and fantasy are replete with series. That’s perfectly reasonable, when we consider that publishers, authors, and agents all love the “automatically” accumulating reprint sales that series make possible. But it is quite difficult to compare Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. There just isn’t that much commonality there.

Series like The Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time are epic in scope. They tell one story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But that one story does not fit in one book: it has to be spread across multiple volumes. The vast majority of these epic series simply cannot be read on a standalone basis (for a great counter-example, see my review of N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms).

If you look at an episodic series like Butcher’s Dresden Files or Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels, the series itself has a very different structure. Each book is a completely self-contained story, with its own beginning and ending that can be read independently of the other books in the series. And in contemporary series, each book and the entire series focuses on the experiences of one particular character.

Building an Episodic Character

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, series like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books were structured around a single universe (Shannara, Pern, and Valdemar, respectively) with standalone trilogies (or duologies) of books set within that universe. Each standalone sub-series could be described as an “epic” sub-series, while if we take the entire oevre together they begin to resemble episodic series. However, following the late ’90s’ rise of “Chihuahua-killer” fantasy tomes, these types of episodic/epic series seem to have vanished from publishers’ new lists.

With the contemporary focus on one character, that character becomes the most important aspect of an episodic series. This is true whether we’re writing an adult urban fantasy series like the Twenty Palaces, a paranormal romance mystery (à la Charlaine Harris), or a middle-grade adventure series (like Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Of course, character matters in every book. But it is the foundation of any episodic series.

What would Sherlock Holmes be without Sherlock Holmes? Could we have the Dresden Files without Harry Dresden? Or the Sookie Stackhouse novels without Sookie? The identity of the series’ protagonist is intrinsically tied up with the identify of the series. Few people realize that the Sookie Stackhouse novels were in fact first dubbed the “Southern Vampires Mysteries”: the pervasive character of their protagonist eventually subsumed the publisher’s attempts to brand the series independently of its hero.

There is a lot of commonality in how episodic authors create their heroes. First, almost all episodic heroes have a Past (note the capital “P”). In many ways, this is a product of the history of episodic series, who are pretty clear descendants of the serialized mystery (Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, etc.). When we meet Connolly’s Ray Lilly, or when we meet Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos each brings to the table a checkered history.

Ray Lilly is an ex-con who survived an unpleasant run-in with magic, and now finds himself employed as a “wooden man” (a sort of enforcer) for a society of wizards (called the “Twenty Palaces Society”). Harry Dresden is a professional wizard private investigator who has had serious altercations with magical society. Vlad Taltos is a low-ranking minority (human) criminal in a larger criminal organization on a magic-filled secondary world.

Each is in some fashion iconoclastic. They have survived altercations with some form of authority in their world, which gives them some form of reputation. This reputation becomes a double-edged sword that both helps and hinders the hero on their adventures. As the books unfold, the reader learns more of this backstory through subtly planted information, for the most part avoiding an infodump that would stall the fast pace of the story. As the series winds to a conclusion, the overarching conclusion likely leads to some resolution of the lingering effects of that backstory.

Every one of these characters is gainfully employed. What’s more, they have jobs that will force them into adventures. Lilly is an enforcer. Dresden is a wizard/private-eye. Taltos is a low-level crime boss/private-eye/assassin. It is their means of employment that makes a long, episodic series possible. A detective will always have another case. An enforcer will always have another assignment. An assassin will always have another target. This enforces a certain structure, along with certain strictures, on each book in the series.

When we meet the hero, they are often inexperienced in some critical aspect. Ray Lilly knows almost nothing about magic, save that it exists. Harry Dresden has lots of magical power, but very little control. Any middle-grade or young adult episodic series (like Artemis Fowl or The 39 Clues) has inexperienced heroes by default: youth and inexperience go hand-in-hand! The use of inexperience makes it possible for the reader to learn alongside the hero, and for the hero to progress through adventures (books) with escalating challenges. As the hero’s experience increases over the course of the series, the challenges that they face can become more difficult, more challenging, more dangerous. Done artfully, this keeps the tension high in the later books in the series, and if tied back to the character’s emotional development can keep the character engaging, whether we’re in book two or twelve.

The use of iconoclasm and employment are both traditional tools of the mystery novel. Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, even Sam Spade – all of the classic detectives were iconoclastic, and the vast majority were actively employed as detectives. The use of inexperience to provide character progression seems to be a newer development, and it is one that an increasing number of episodic series rely on.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment for episodic plots, how to keep the reader reading in one book, and how to avoid flagging interest as the series progresses.

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