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.
SARAH REES BRENNAN:
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.