The Big Idea: Sarah Rees Brennan

Author Sarah Rees Brennan likes the bad boys. I’m not telling you any great secret here. Her novel The Demon’s Lexicon features one of those bad boys: Nick, who among other things is the sort who keeps sharp pointy objects underneath the sink because, hey, you have to keep them somewhere. But while the “bad boy” is a staple of literature, he’s usually a side character. What happens when you put him front and center — and in a book with demons and evil magicians? That’s Brennan’s big idea, and here she is to tell you more.


We’ve all read about That Guy. You know the one. Tall, dark and largely silent. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Lord Byron as he liked to think of himself. The popularity of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, two literary examples of That Guy, has lasted centuries.

And all this in spite of the fact they were very dodgy characters. Heathcliff, hero of one of the best-loved romances of all time, had a couple of hobbies like wife-beating and puppy-hanging:

READER: You were thinking of killing that little kid, weren’t you?
HEATHCLIFF: (looks shifty)
READER: You’re letting me down, you know. You’re letting yourself down. And you’re certainly letting the little kid down.
HEATHCLIFF: Oh, I could…
READER: Let him down GENTLY!

Not to mention Rochester’s er, unconventional wooing style. We all know about the mad wife in the attic, but there was a lot more going on.

JANE EYRE: So first, you tell me some stories about how you probably caught syphilis tomcatting around Europe.
ROCHESTER: It’s just a rash, and I’m sure it’ll clear up in no time…
JANE EYRE: Then, as well as hiding a crazy wife in the attic, you introduce a fake fiancée to the house in order to make me jealous.
ROCHESTER: Breach of promise, bigamy. Ask me to commit any crime for you, baby. Seriously… any crime at all.
JANE EYRE: And then you decided to disguise yourself as a gypsy woman in order to tell me about our eternal love. 1, 8753th count of lying to me. First count of cross-dressing.
ROCHESTER: And your point is…?
JANE EYRE: Kiss me, you mad bonnet-wearing fool!
READER: … Bzuh?

What does That Guy have to do with genre fiction, though? Well, he’s in there, too. He’s all over. This trope was so well-established even back in Tolkien’s day that Tolkien could use it for effect: he could set up Strider as a genuine menace who made all the hobbits wet themselves when he threw back his hood, and even when we were sure he was on the side of light we were also sure that he was a very rough customer indeed.

High fantasy and urban fantasy and paranormal romance and all the slip-sliding books in between, he’s there:  tall, dark, silent and surly, knowing a lot more about everything that’s going on than the hapless protagonist and usually, since to live in a genre novel is to live in interesting times, excellent with any weapon to hand.

He’s become so popular that he’s been watered down: mad, bad and dangerous to know becoming ‘Seems a little mean at first, but on the look-out for love: particularly enjoys long walks on the beach and talking about his feelings!’ On my four hundredth go-round with a book involving Mr Tall, Dark and Diet I thought to myself that someone should bring the original undiluted version back, and really think about what made him compelling and made him tick. And that we shouldn’t be seeing it from the point of view of a girl much taken with the muscular thighs and meanness, or a guy haplessly protagonisting behind Mr Tall and Dark’s sword, but from inside the head of That Guy, to see what he was thinking.

Besides ‘why does everyone else talk so much,’ I mean.

People sometimes ask me if it was difficult writing from the point of view of a guy: this always makes me laugh. I mean, sure, I’m not a guy, but I know them, love a lot of them, am surrounded by them at all times. Very few writers write from the point of view of someone living their exact life.

But an important part of That Guy is that That Guy Is Not Right. My hero Nick doesn’t kill puppies or cross-dress, but he’s been raised in a atmosphere of constant violence. He learned to use knives when he was seven, he ditches bodies in the river and then drives home annoyed about being late for dinner. Finding true love isn’t going to fix him. Finding a voucher for five years of free therapy probably isn’t going to fix him. I wanted to show all that, and yet not write a book which made readers go ‘Oh my God, the main character… if only one could reach into the pages of a book and BEAT THE HERO TO DEATH WITH A SPATULA.’

It was possibly more weird to write from the point of view of someone who didn’t even read. That was unnatural, since I was the kid whose parents asked her to give up reading books for Lent. ‘We’d just like to see your face sometime, that’s all,’ they said. Three days later, I was following them chattering desperately as they tried to go to the bathroom and reading off the back of cereal packets saying ‘Extra fibre, very nutritious!’ and they saw the error of their ways.

The challenges were many and varied. Researching Nick’s part-time job I had to deal with mechanics who said kindly but firmly, ‘We do not fix imaginary cars,’ and let’s not even mention the guard at the barracks who looked extremely upset when I asked him about the problem of hitting ribs when you stabbed someone. Having to convey a world-ajar ‘keep the black magic secret but for God’s sake bring in the tourists’ fantasy universe through the eyes of someone who knew all about it and didn’t want to talk about any of it made me long for the hapless protagonist who comes along and says ‘What is all this puzzling carry-on? Please explain it to me in great detail!’

But That Guy deserves his say just as much as any hapless protagonist, and when it comes to writing challenges – slightly shamed though I am to be concluding a thoughtful spiel on books with a Lady Gaga quote – if it’s not rough, it isn’t fun.

What I learned, basically, from writing That Guy: don’t pull your punches. He wouldn’t.


The Demon’s Lexicon: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from The Demon’s Lexicon. Read Brennan’s LiveJournal. Follow Brennan on Twitter.

33 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sarah Rees Brennan”

  1. I have to say, when I saw the cover for this post I did a bit of an eyeroll, but then read on, and I’m glad I did. I felt EXACTLY the same way about Jane Eyre; actually, I’m just going to have to go on record and say I detest the Brontes. I’m going to have to pick the Demon’s Lexicon up. If there’s even a slight sprinkling of Brennan’s humor in this book, it’s going to be a very good one.

  2. Good idea, I think. Richard Stark’s (Donald Westlake) Parker is the crime/noir genre’s quintessential bad boy, and those books work exceedingly well. I’m interested in a similar effort on the science fiction/fantasy front. I look forward to reading this.

  3. That sounds really interesting but if I saw this cover in a store and didn’t know anything about it I’d vomit in my mouth a little. I’ve heard that authors generally have very little control over the covers of their books, which is kind of depressing given how much a cover can either pull people in or turn them off.

    Another reason why I like my e-reader though – I don’t have to be embarrassed on the bus when other people see the cover of whatever I’m reading! The book sounds fantastic.

  4. The cover does sort of scream “Edward Cullen fans, this is your lucky day!”.

    OTOH, the description of what the author is doing with the main character sounds awesome enough for me to put this near the top of my “to buy” list.

  5. Authors have very little control over their covers. Do not hold Demon’s Lexicon’s US cover against Rees Brennan! Demon’s Lexicon is most excellent. It is the opposite of this cover.

    *goes into a corner to weep over how little control over covers we authors have*

  6. I thought the same thing as tt when I saw the cover. The book does sound very interesting though. *adds to list*

  7. Sigh. Another on my list of “books I’d really enjoy reading, if only I had time.” I may read it…but I’ll put a paper slipcover on it, because that’s a really embarrassing cover. I mean, I’d be embarrassed to be seen reading something that looks so much like a particularly icky specimen of romance novel, with either a butch-looking heroine or a hero who puts on lipstick like a woman. Or maybe a man in touch with his feminine side, to the detriment of the story.

    If it were about a transgendered person, I’d read it with pride, especially if it said “Tiptree Award Winner!” or something on the cover. But it looks more like the artist just had no idea how to paint a man’s face.

  8. I agree that the Japanese cover is awesome. If I buy this book, I might print out a copy and glue it on.

    Hey, there’s a thought. Authors can’t control the official covers for their books, but there’s nothing stopping them from offering fan-submitted alternate covers on their websites. Not that it helps attract the casual buyer put off by an awful cover, but it does give an alternative for the determined buyers who are dismayed by the prospect of having to show said awful cover to their friends when asked what they’re reading. Plus, it’s fun.

    I should see if there are any template files floating around for fold-on book covers.

  9. sptrashcan, you may have to do something inelegant to get around the fact that Japanese covers’ fronts are our backs, but that would be cool.

    If you remove the dust jacket of the US edition, there is an illustration of a sword on the book itself.

  10. sptrashcan:

    “there’s nothing stopping them from offering fan-submitted alternate covers on their websites.”

    Aside from possibly offending an art director one may have to work with again, which is not an insignificant consideration.

    Also, I think the point that some people do not like this cover has been sufficiently made at the point. Take it as read and move forward, please.

  11. I’d like to mention, for the benefit of everyone reading this who also has an LJ account, that the author’s LiveJournal is one of the funniest things ever, and you should put it on your friends list soonest.

  12. “He only shot one person…but the night is young.” Oo, I wanna read the rest of this one!

  13. Our Gracious Host:
    “Aside from possibly offending an art director one may have to work with again, which is not an insignificant consideration.”

    A fair point and one I had not considered. The same risk of offense does not extend to the fans themselves, though. If readers of genre fiction were to independently organize an alternate-cover exchange program independent of authors and publishers, that might work. It might be a solution in search of a problem, but I’ve seen enough objections to various covers, and (more positively) preference for one cover variant over another, that it might get some traction.

    It’s not really relevant to the topic of this thread, though, and for that I apologize.

    On topic: this seems like a neat book, I liked the sample chapter, and I might pick it up the next time I buy books. I do like me some antiheroes, especially the ones who aren’t just softies with a callous exterior but rather are genuinely nasty people who happen to be on the right side of things.

  14. In the interest of bringing things back on topic, Harry Connolly’s anti-hero in Child Of Fire is pretty damn good as well. I think Urban Fantasy has a good track record on anti-heroes, but I really appreciate reading “Finding true love isn’t going to fix him. Finding a voucher for five years of free therapy probably isn’t going to fix him.”

    Because, *damn* have I had to explain that too many times to friends in real life.

  15. Got it in Kindle Edition (was traveling, have an iPhone, and Fictionwise was almost double the price and had the wrong author credited so I was dubious of buying theirs). So no worries about the cover. I do love the Japanese cover though.

    The brother dynamic was great. Nick’s confusion about ‘why do these silly people keep doing these things’ was great, though I did wonder about his practicality. (Swords are generally long, and under-sink cupboards tend toward the somewhat small and awkward.) All that said, I enjoyed the book and I hope it does well.

  16. Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett, has a similar “that guy” character. Its not a romance though. No romance elements for him at all.

  17. This sounds really interesting, but I’m considering boycotting reading it on account of the fact that I’ll have Poker Face stuck in my head for hours now…but it sounds so good! My revenge boycotting will clearly not last long.

  18. Between the excerpt and the Big Idea explanation, I’m sold! Luckily, I just received a bookstore gift card.

  19. Its worth pointing out that St Leonard’s where the book starts is the posh, expensive bit of Exeter – so just how bad can this guy be, when there is a delicatessen and organic butchers so close by?
    Having said that, I was so excited by reading something set a few streets away from where I live (in the next neighbourhood, which isn’t exactly the Bronx either …) from the Amazon excerpt that I bought it immediately.

  20. I might purchase it, as it seems a more reasonable premise for a main character than most for sci-fi/fantasy. The cold hearted bast@#rd is likely to be of more use in a fight than the guy who keeps saying “oh my god, oh my god, etc.” and in a state of near constant emotional angst. Unless, of course, its Bill Paxton’s character from Aliens.

    On the other hand, I will be losing that cover the second I walk out of the store (and hoping that none of the clerks who know me handle the purchase). While there is a risk of offending art directors, I personally think some art directors need to be offended.

  21. And by the way (sorry about the double post), if one likes to read about main characters with the dark, violent streak and who aren’t really nice guys, try the Strongbow Saga by Judson Roberts. The teenage main character is something of a sociopath, though the reasons are pretty well developed, which makes him dangerous even by the standards of the Vikings he was raised among.

  22. Also bought it. Pretty good (4 out of 5 stars- I had some minor quibbles). Almost strays into teen romance but veers sharply into action the last 100 pages or so.

    And for those guys who are hyper sensitive (including me), take the dust cover off the book. The book’s natural design is perfectly acceptable.

  23. I LOVED this book (and quite like the UK cover, even if it is paperback and therefore more susceptible to damage). Also, I met Sarah yesterday – she’s an absolutely lovely, hysterical woman in person as well as in print. :)

  24. “My hero Nick doesn’t kill puppies or cross-dress…” Since when are THOSE two activities related?

    “1, 8753th count of lying to me. First count of cross-dressing.” Since when are those two on a par?

    I know you don’t have anything against cross-dressers, because you have a number of characters in your stories from the GLBTQIA2 (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/androgynous, and Two-Spirit, as the acronym has now expanded to) community. So why joke about cross-dressing as if it were a sign of villainy?

    Pink Flamingos, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Dressed to Kill … the transvestite is almost always a serial killer! What’s up with that?

  25. Was suggested to read this book from a forum talking about the manga “Ao no Exorcist” (awesome, btw, as it’s also about demons, possession, and anti-heroes). This article has made DL #1 on my reading list. I like it when sociopaths are sociopaths and not emo teens. Only issue is I’m going to make a cover from a paper bag cause I do not want my brother to see the cover and then ask if I’m reading Twilight. Yuck.

    Look forward to reading this!

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