Lessons Learned from #HollyBlack: #write a #hero with #hopesanddreams for compelling #fiction

A lot can happen in sixteen years.

A boisterous kid becomes a moody teen.

A free-spirited college student becomes a career-obsessed adult.

A writer becomes a…writer? Yes, still a writer. But a stronger writer.

I’m looking at you, Holly Black.

This woman’s got phenomenal talent. Black’s written books that lure you to dive head-first into her world. She’s got a strong following of readers, and one look at books like The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King show why. The relationships are complex, the conflicts compelling. We want to see what these characters do next, especially Jude, the teen protagonist.

Now I’ve talked a bit about Jude before, both in my post on tragic backstories as well as dissecting one of the briefest chapters ever written. Today I want to return to Jude because of another Holly Black title, the first Holly Black title:Tithe.


Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death.

So over the course of sixteen years, Black wrote two different series about two teen heroines dealing with faeries. Fairies. Fae. However you spell it.

I–and many other readers, I imagine–connected with Jude because of her hopes and dreams. Jude is a girl struggling for identity inside her mostly Fae family as well as the Fae society. She witnessed her human parents’ murder by a Fae general, was then ripped away from the human realm along with her twin sister and half-Fae sister to be raised by that same general, and now attends school with other Fae gentry. She is living, breathing evidence of her mother’s desertion, yet this general fathers Jude like one of his own. In turn, Jude yearns to train and serve the Fae royalty as a knight despite being mortal. She loves her little brother, the Fae “son” of the general and his new wife. This is a girl fighting to make a place for herself in a world not created for her. She’s so desperate to make her mark in the Fae courts that she’s willing to kill in order to achieve her dream.

And then, there’s Kaye from Tithe.

Lots of people like this book, so I assume they must like Kaye as well.

But for me…look, this isn’t a roast of of Tithe. There’s plenty of strong elements here, and when one considers this is Black’s debut novel, those elements should be all the more commended. She blends Faerie and human realms seamlessly. The Fae are quite unique between Seelie and Unseelie. The black knight Roiben provides a wealth of inner conflict: magic compels him to do despicable things under the command of the Unseelie Queen, including killing a friend of Kaye’s. When we read from his point of view, we learn just how much he hates himself because he so often he has no control over his actions. A reader’s sympathy for him grows with every chapter.

And then, there’s Kaye.

Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle. She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was–see if she would swallow a butt whole.

This is the first paragraph of the Prologue. This is our first impression of Kaye.

Already I’m wincing, but maybe that’s my prudish Midwestern nature. Plenty of kids have shitty parents, drinking parents. Plenty of teenagers pick up smoking. Turns out Kaye’s mother sings in a lousy club band and is dating one of its members, the “asshole Lloyd.” During the wrap up after a gig, Lloyd for no understandable reason tries to stab Kaye’s mom but Kaye stops him. (It is later learned he’d been entranced, for the record.)

We’re only a couple pages in, and Kaye’s witnessed an attempted murder. Normally this sort of thing, especially when family’s involved, would leave some sort of mark on a person, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, or all three. This is something that spawns nightmares, phobias, fixations on danger and/or thrills.

Yet Kaye and her mother Ellen only talk about moving in with Grandma. No confusion or anger over what Lloyd did. No fear over how they’re going to live next. No anxiety over whether or not Grandma will accept them after a six-year absence. Just…

“Honey,” Ellen said finally, “we’re going to have to go to Grandma’s.”

“Did you call her?” Kaye asked. …

“It’ll be a little while. You can visit that friend of yours.”

“Janet,” Kaye said. She hoped that was who Ellen meant. She hoped her mother wasn’t teasing her about that faerie bullshit again. If she had to hear another story about Kaye and her cute imaginary friends…

As you may have surmised, this is when Kaye started to lose me.

Yet I kept reading. Openings are tough. Kaye’s got to get back to her childhood home somehow, soooo okay, this works. Now Kaye’s on the New Jersey shore, walking and talking with her friend Janet on their way to hanging out with boys.

“Kaye, when we get there, you have to be cool. Don’t seem so weird. Guys don’t like weird….don’t you want a boyfriend?”

I had to stop there.

What did Kaye want?

From my impression of Kaye’s memories of her mother falling asleep in toilets and attaching herself to loser after loser, Kaye clearly doesn’t dig the life of a traveling musician. Yet her grandmother’s demands that she attend school are met with the same lack of enthusiasm.

In fact, Kaye doesn’t talk about anything with enthusiasm except Roiben, a lone faerie she helps on the roadside.

“Look, I’m only going to be in town for a couple of months, at most. The only thing that matters is that he is cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die beautiful.” Kaye waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Perhaps Kaye is a girl who’s never allowed herself to dream. We can be like that too, I suppose–too fearful of failure, too weary of life’s obstacles to dare hope for anything beyond what’s in front of us.

So when Kaye is told she herself is a faerie who’s been glamoured to look human since birth, she…well, what do you think?

She was shaking her head, but even as she did it, she knew it was true. It felt true, unbalancing and rebalancing her world so neatly that she wondered how she didn’t think of it before now. After all, why would only she be visited by faeries? Why would only she have magic she couldn’t control?

Such a revelation alters everything: her human family’s not really hers. She’s not human at all. Any hope, any dream she had for her future must now be sacrificed–

Hang on.

She didn’t have any aspirations. This revelation, this life-altering revelation….just what exactly does it change inside Kaye?

I’m going to stop dissecting Tithe here. I’ll still recommend it for the world and for the conflicted Fae knight Roiben, but I cannot recommend Tithe for its heroine. For all her dislike against her grandmother’s “normal” lifestyle and her mother’s alcohol addled life on the road, has she honestly not once hidden a special passion for something to keep herself sane? One would think it’d be her “cute imaginary friends,” but Kaye’s first reference to her Fae visitors from childhood was “faerie bullshit.” So as of the beginning of this novel, faeries were no longer special. She keeps no journal, no art, no collection of little things she’d never dare show her mom. Even Janet, the one friend she’s been emailing from libraries, is completely blown off once Roiben comes onto the scene.

Readers care about characters who care. The character may be a jerk in many ways, but even jerks can have a soft spot. Jude committed murder in The Cruel Prince, yet I still found myself rooting for her. Why? Because she was fighting for her kid brother’s safety. Because she wanted the enemies of the old Faerie king to pay for their treachery. She gets her heart broken by one Fae boy while finding her fate entwined with another. Jude IS passion–hardly the “he’s so dreamy” passion, but the “I want my family to survive a coup” passion. The “I want to LIVE” passion.

That’s passion any reader can feel beating in his/her own heart.

Kaye never seems to feel that. She simply floats along whether she’s human or faerie, accepting whatever situation she’s placed in, fearful only of losing Roiben.

How often are we telling our teenagers not to wrap their entire lives around one other human being? To have their own hopes and dreams, because someone who truly loves them will love those dreams and help find a way to achieve them?

Love can be a powerful force in a fantasy, to be sure.

But so is hope.

So are dreams.

Which fictional hero or heroine inspires you to dream? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks, too, for your encouragement during my saga over the full-time slot at the university. I didn’t get it, but I’m hopeful for the next time. πŸ™‚

Don’t forget to pick up the March edition of my newsletter!

And if you’re a fan of dreamers (and stories of dreams gone fantastically awry) I hope you’ll check out my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and my short story collection Tales of the River Vine are all free to download from Amazon, too.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

20 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from #HollyBlack: #write a #hero with #hopesanddreams for compelling #fiction

  1. Sorry about the interview. University’s loss. Hope you are enjoying proper food again. You are so right about sharing hopes and dreams. Nothing worse than trying to work out who you are rooting for in a story, sadly it happens to often. Sometimes a clever movie or book gets you to start understanding or even buying into the villains vision. Keep smiling. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. πŸ™‚ I have a feeling I was a seat-filler in the interview process–the person they chose has twice as many years in the field as me, not to mention academic service and publications up the wazoo. She’s far more prepared for that kind of workload than I am, that’s for sure! πŸ™‚
      And you’re right. I like reading about someone reaching for something–even a bad something–is still a SOMEthing.
      So I’ll keep smiling–and writing. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 3 people

    • True! I’m trying to think of Diana Wynne Jones’ favored heroines….I want to say Brunhilde, but I’m sure I got that spelled wrong.
      Of all the fictional girls out there, one suddenly springs to mind from my kid-lit reading days. Ramona Quimby! That little girl had all sorts of misadventures and did all sorts of dumb things kids are oft want to do, but she kept on growing. Even as “Ramona the Pest,” she still had things she wanted to do, to achieve, just like any other little kid.
      If you’ve any granddaughters in single digits, Ramona’s a fun character kids can relate to. Beverly Cleary, I believe is the author.

      Liked by 2 people

      • My one and only granddaugter is now at uni. Howver, I understand the make up of characters that appeal to you…the ones that drive you forward. A fine thing. I suppose my self-created character ‘Svetlana’ means a lot to me…what with her taking care of my every need. Yes, I’m very fond of Svet.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi. Not sure if I’ve already mentioned this book on another of your essays: I Am The Clay, by Chaim Potok. It’s a stark narrative about uprooted poor people in Korea during the Korean War. Two of the characters, an elderly lady and a teenager, are inspiring. The boy shows the importance of having dreams.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I enjoyed Tithe, it was the first Holly Black book I read and I really liked Kaye. I’ve known women like Kaye who have to be the parent, not the daughter. I also wondered about her aspirations, but when it is revealed that she is Fey, a changeling, her attitude makes sense. She is guarded all the time, not sure of the world or who she is.
    My fav heroines; ooh, that’s a tough one, but I’ll go for Morgainne from Mists of Avalon, Ruby from S England’s trilogy Tanner’s Dell and Clary Fray from The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your input! I know I’m an outlier on my reaction to Kaye. I suppose it comes from reading Cruel Prince first, and seeing what Holly Black can do with a complex character *now*, and then going to Tithe, to see what she did with characters *then.* Lord knows how I’ll look back on my own writing in sixteen years. πŸ™‚
      I’ve never heard of Tanner’s Dell, so I’ll have to look that up. Thanks for the recommendations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • My pleasure, I hope you’ll give the author of Tanner’s Dell a go, she writes great characters. And I know about looking back at your writing, I found an old folder of stories from my English class at school. oh dear. lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The first Holly Black book I read was White Cat, which I liked for the exceptional magic system but not so much for the characters, who also seemed too detached IMO. Then I tried to read Tithe and stopped at the deserted Jersey carnival because I also needed and didn’t have any reason to root for Kaye. I want to read The Cruel Prince because so many I personally know have liked the book but it’s taking some effort to convince myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! I don’t know White Cat, so you’ve got my interest with the world-building. I can readily recommend Cruel Prince for the characters alone. Each character’s got motivations unique unto themselves, and the way Jude’s mixed family twists and turns amidst the court drama is honestly really compelling. I think you’d dig it. πŸ™‚
      As these comments already show, Kaye could connect with some people, and that’s fine. We’re not those people, and that’s fine, too. πŸ™‚ Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  5. I think I wouldn’t care about the characters who don’t care, but perhaps the book was an attempt to reach a particular kind of moody teenager readers. The ones who didn’t have a caring role model, and whose life is a paddle-less floating. The ones who hate a normal life style because they are not sure about the definition of ‘normal’. I guess there are many kids like that, and some of them like reading books πŸ™‚
    I’d better not reveal my sources of inspiration here. I was a weird kid πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Then keep your secrets, my friend. That is fine!
      And yes, I think you may a good point. Kaye is a kind of person some people can connect to. I’m not one of those people in her 30s, but were I 16 reading this book? Who knows? πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. These are new to me. You’ve sold me on reading about Jude, but having just waded through two Edwardian novels with passive heroines who drift aimlessly through a series of situations where they mostly accept whatever is thrown at them, I’ll give Kaye a miss.

    I think you’re spot on. A character who is passionate about something, will draw readers on, – and on – through the pages of a story. Passion makes characters pro-active, even when we don’t agree with them, they tend to be interesting. I’ll have to look out for Holly Black. What a lot of authors you’re introducing me to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And vice versa!
      Jude’s definitely worth a read. I suppose I don’t understand this “read ALL of an author you like” mentality–it’s a mindset Bo has with films. When he likes one director’s film, he hunts down all the films, even if some are duds. One shouldn’t have to like ALL that a creator makes, don’t you think?

      Like

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