My Students, My Readers

This might be my worst idea yet.

Some of my freshmen (class of 2016) have asked to read the current draft of my novel as their “outside reading project” this semester. My first inclination was to say “No” since I want them to read great literature or at least something fantastically entertaining. I’m proud of my story—especially my latest draft, but I’m not in the same league as Rowling, Collins, Tolkien, Card, Asimov, Bester, Conroy, or a thousand others. Besides that, it would be weird for me to have them come in asking questions about my own story. Their reading it makes me vulnerable.

However, I have agreed to their request for several reasons:
1. I am happy with the novel and have received positive feedback from a few editors and other readers.
2. The students seem genuinely interested in what I’ve been up to—they think reading my book would be fun, if for no other reason than the novelty of critiquing a teacher’s work for a change.
3. I’m extremely curious about what they’ll think.
4. I think it is important that they see someone “go for it.” Hopefully, they’ll see me working toward my dream, see that it is often difficult, that it is okay to make mistakes, etc. I’m not giving up and I’m having fun.
5. And there’s a more academic reason: talking to them about my writing process could be a valuable learning tool for them as it (hopefully) will be for me. What I mean is, they’ll be able to ask an author direct questions like “Why did you chose to have X happen?” “How is X connected to Y?” It turns out there is a new state test heading our way in a few years (grumble-grumble-grumble) and it will test high school students on their ability to craft a story—so explaining how and why I made the decisions I did could help them consider story elements in their own writing. At the very least, it should open their eyes to the number of factors that go into an author’s decision making.

I will still encourage them to select any of the other novels on my approved list as they are, in fact, better than mine, but it seems that 10 – 20 plan on reading my draft.

Their critiques could provide great insight about what is working in the story and what is not. On the other hand, this entire ordeal may simply bring me to tears.

Of course, I expect some students to take this as an opportunity to get revenge on me for all the times I gave them something less than an “A.” That goes without saying. Still, I will encourage them to be honest in their critiques and join in my creative process and growth. If I were a student, I think I’d find this appealing. After all, it’s not every day they get an “inside scoop” and can actually help shape a story.

Oh, one last thing: no matter what my students say, “I solemnly swear not to hold their criticism against them.” They can still get an “A” on this assignment if they trash my novel.

I promise.

Orphans in the Hero’s Journey

It’s amazing how many heroes in archetypal stories are, for one reason or another, raised by people other than their birth parents.

I’ll have more detailed examples at the bottom of this post, but this is a classic trait going back to the Greeks (Theseus, Phaeton, Achilles, Telemachus, to name a few). In the Christian faith, we see that both Moses and Jesus were raised by people other than their parents (well, Jesus was raised by his mother and step-father—and yes, I get that God was “there” in a spiritual sense, but he didn’t change Jesus’s diapers). The orphan hero persisted with the invention of the novel (Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, etc.) and has continued to our modern heroes (James Bond, Charles Foster Kane, Harry Potter, Clarice Starling, Hugo Cabret, Luke Skywalker). In fact, if we take a quick look at the many super-heroes that Hollywood has made so popular in the last decade, we see that Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Green Lantern, Wolverine and most of the other X-Men all lost their parents when they were fairly young. Actually, it’s harder to find super-heroes who were raised by their birth parents. Let’s see . . . there’s Thor and . . . yeah. That might be it. Congratulations, Thor! Too bad you start off as such a spoiled brat of a hero.

Why is becoming an orphan so common in archetypal stories? Basically it is because over the course of the journey/story, the hero must learn about himself and become a new man (Transformation). If the hero doesn’t really know “who he is or where he comes from” at the beginning, then he has even more to learn, has farther to go in that journey, and the change is therefore more dramatic. I’m not suggesting that real-life orphans need to go off in search of their true parents—I certainly hope they grow up and love the people who cared for them and raised them—but in terms of fiction, the orphan has a longer and perhaps more interesting road of self-discovery.

• Sadly, we don’t find out anything about the childhoods of our favorite underdogs in Major League.
• Everyone knows Harry Potter’s parents died saving his life when Harry was just a baby. He spends much of his seven novel series learning about them.
• Most of the boys in Stand By Me have parents. Gordy lost his older brother. Teddy’s father is crazy and, if my memory serves, is an absent father. Chris’s father is terrible and a criminal. However, the boys are all still raised by their biological parents.
• While many children are made orphans in The Godfather, the only main character who is an actual orphan is Tom Hagan who has been raised as one of Michael’s brothers. Later in the film, Michael has to leave his family for an extended period of time, but he’s already an adult at that point.
• In Lord of the Rings, Frodo is an orphan, spending most of his time with his uncle Bilbo. Aragorn rejects his heritage for most of the story, avoiding the people he should claim as his own.
• Batman/Bruce Wayne’s main motive to find justice results from the brutal murder of his parents. Young Bruce is then raised by the family butler (not sure how that works, exactly, but let’s just go with it).
• In the original Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker is raised by his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru because his true parents . . . well, I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone.
• I already mentioned that James Bond is an orphan, but in Skyfall, we find out just how devastated he was by his parents’ deaths. Actually, he’s a bit like Bruce Wayne/Batman in that it seems like his parents’ deaths eventually lead him to his life of fighting crime/terrorism. If Bond’s parents had lived, he never would have joined MI-6. As M states in the film, “Orphans always make the best recruits.”

Choosing the Perfect Setting: Part Two

The best settings influence or benefit the story.

Think of some examples from books or movies you know and love. Many could probably take place in any big city or any small town, but that means the setting isn’t a major “character” in the story. Dystopians and many other science fiction or fantasy novels treat the setting as a character and the plot usually leaps right out of it. This is certainly the case in recent popular YA Dystopians like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and Divergent—the setting practically is the story (though not really because the main character changes quite a bit in each one).

Pick some stories in which the setting clearly benefits the overall story is some way. Take the time to analyze why the setting matters. What makes them memorable and special?

Keep in mind that setting includes the culture, the economics, and the prevalent attitudes of the region. Consider stories like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible in which the characters’ religious beliefs are the very thing that make the story possible. Obviously One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could only take place in a mental institution, but Kesey portrayed the asylum (and the nurse who ran it) in a particular way that clearly set up his plot and themes of individualism VS conformity, power abuse, etc.

A Streetcar Named Desire, my favorite play, could have happened in any major city of its time, but the fact that the Kowalskis choose to live in the French Quarter tells us a lot about Stanley and it is a sharp contrast to the plantation lifestyle to which the DuBois are accustomed.

My mind immediately leaps to Gotham City. While there are many incarnations of it, the city usually seems aptly named. That is to say, it is a dark and spooky metropolis—the kind of place that could give rise to a man who dresses like a bat, a psychopathic clown, a crocodile man living in the sewers, and many other scarred individuals with a penchant for mayhem.

Similarly, the city in David Fincher’s film Seven is unrelentingly bleak. It is home to murder and all sorts of moral depravity. While the city is filled with dull, dark colors, rain, and misery, the library (with its bright green lights and classical music) seems like a refuge for our great literary heritage. Unfortunately, we see that the library is empty . . . which ultimately magnifies the drudgery of the city.

On a happier note, check out the film Pleasantville which has two modern teenagers transported into a 1950s television show where everything is always innocent and happy. In this case, the setting changes as the characters within it change. It’s an interesting film worth watching.

What are settings do you find memorable and powerful? What makes them so?