Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Define Your Own “Normal” Sibling Ties

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412The concept of slight-of-hand—whom you think you can or can’t trust is all upside down and sideways—is not unique to Jones by any means. What IS worth noting here is how that method plays out when the protagonist is a child. Because of his limited world experience, what he defines as “normal,” or as “loving,” can be VASTLY different from humanity’s norm. Because of this, the actions of, say, a sibling, can always be spun to fit the child’s understanding of love.

Take Eric “Cat” Chant in Charmed Life. A strange boating accident leaves him orphaned with his elder sister Gwendolen, whom everyone adores, including the protagonist: “Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her” (p. 1). Here is a boy who, with this perspective, will always think well of his sister no matter what she does because, as far as he knows, she is the only family he has. They are cared for, and SHE is adored by all the witches in their community (it’s a bustling magical world, this place).

But no adoration comes from Gwendolen to her brother. None at all. She gives him cramps, she turns his violin into a cat, she constantly calls him “idiot” and “stupid.” Yet Cat accepts this all as normal because with Gwendolen, this attitude IS the norm. It didn’t help that a clairvoyant predicted Gwendolen shall rule the world.

Enter murmurings of The Dark Stranger, the one to help Gwendolen conquer the planet. He also happens to be one whose very name makes witches and warlocks shudder: Chrestomanci. Because their foster mother is terrified of the man, so is Cat. Of course, Gwendolen decides that HE must be the one to teach her magic, and forces him into their lives.

It takes little for an adult to terrify a child, especially when they are so sharply dressed and curtly spoken. Chrestomanci meets Cat first, and chides him for scrumping apples. He then meets Gwendolen and agrees to heading their instruction in magic (regardless of the fact Cat has not shown any talent whatsoever).

The children are taken to Chrestomanci Castle, which is all gorgeous and foreboding and whatnot. Chrestomanci does not teach them, and the tutor with their charge won’t bother with witchcraft lessons until they prove knowledgeable in other subjects. Gwendolen does not like this, surprise surprise, so she proceeds to initiate pranks all over the castle—fields of mole hills, shifting the forests, calling up apparitions, transforming dresses into snakes, and so on.

Chrestomanci’s power is felt and, to Cat, seen. Chrestomanci grew often when he used his power, or even with instilling commands into others: “He looked so tall like that that Cat was surprised that his head was still under the ceiling. ‘There’s one absolute rule in this Castle,’ he said, ‘which it will pay you all to remember. No witchcraft of any kind is to be practiced by children…’” (p.42).

Because of Gwendolen’s prank campaign against Chrestomanci, Cat is naturally inclined to see Chrestomanci as the villain and Gwendolen as the…well, as the sort of good. He does not care for her pranks, either, especially the apparitions, yet she is his sister. She is the ally. She is the one who cares for him and wants him to be okay. Right?

It takes a lot for a child to fully understand how good—or bad—a family member is, especially when that family member is all you care about.

By the book’s end, Gwendolen IS queen of a parallel world, and she intends to keep it that way through Cat.

“Now, where was I?” Gwendolen said, turning back to the Nostrum brothers. “Oh, yes. I thought I’d better come back because I wanted to see the fun, and I remembered I’d forgotten to tell you Cat has nine lives. You’ll have to kill him several times, I’m afraid.… I’ve been using his magic ever since he was a baby.” (p.197)

The hints have been there, throughout the story, but now, Gwendolen is perfectly blunt: Cat was only good for his magic. She had already killed him four times before—his previous lives were the apparitions she summoned to scare Chrestomanci. No. Love. At all.

Nothing matters for a moment. Cat doesn’t care if the evil warlocks and witches under Gwendolen want to kill him and use his life to take over other worlds. What did it matter? He had no family, no one who cared about him.

But he does have family. Chrestomanci is himself a Chant, and he refuses to let Cat give up. When the others go searching for an enchanted cat containing one of Cat’s nine lives so they can kill it, Chrestomanci does something no one else has done before: he shows he believes in Cat.

“Cat,” said Chrestomanci. He sounded almost as desperate as Fiddle. “Cat, I know how you’re feeling. We hoped you wouldn’t find out about Gwendolen for years yet. But you are an enchanter. I suspect you’re a stronger enchanter than I am when you set your mind to it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything.”

“You’ve more ability in the little finger of that hand than most people—including Gwendolen—have in their entire lives.” (p.201)

The battle over, and Gwendolen sealed in another world, Cat comes to terms with his reclaimed magic and prospects of a new life with Chrestomanci. It is not the normal he knows. Thanks to the love found in Chrestomanci’s family, it will be far, far better.

Sibling relationships, or the lack thereof, have a profound impact on characters and readers alike. Don’t be afraid to use this connection to make—or break—your protagonist.

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#Lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups

51dW4rYg4cL._bL160_Those who write books usually write with a specific age group in mind. Oh sure, we can say, “This is for anyone who loves a good story,” but when the protagonist is 12, there’s a natural inclination in the plot, setting, and conflict to please the prepubescent crowd. Diana Wynne Jones wrote children’s stories for a good twenty years before writing A Sudden Wild Magic, her first adult story for the fantasy genre. It was this experience that also led her to discuss the absurd differences in writing for old vs. young in the article “Two Kinds of Writing?” Though I would love to simply reprint the piece here and let Jones speak for herself, I will confine myself to sharing a few highlights.

For one thing, adults are considered to be far more simple-minded than children. Everything about how the world works and what it looks like must be explained in inane detail. Because children are at the stage when their brains are constantly tested in school and gaming and the like, complex stories mean nothing to them. (She also makes a wry poke at adults: if they can follow a Doctor Who storyline, they can follow ANYTHING.) A Sudden Wild Magic has two major settings and several plotlines that follow groups of characters, characters on their own, characters regrouped—seriously, I lost count. Yet did I get confused about who’s this centaur or why Zillah’s on Leathe? Nope. Because I’m in the story. Jones has always been a master of balancing detail, dialogue, and wit-full exposition. When she puts down one plot thread to pick up another, I know it’s for a reason and am never disappointed. (And I’m not even a Doctor Who fan.)

Speaking of characters, adults are evidently too simple-minded to keep characters straight. Jones noticed that many grown-ups writing for grown-ups would repeat key traits when referencing to a character. How many times does a reader have to be reminded the dude’s got green eyes or came from Ohio? Yet this happens all the time. Jones barely does this in A Sudden Wild Magic; when she does, it is from a character’s point of view, and it is because this character doesn’t know the other’s name. That way, the tactic isn’t so much a reader’s reminder as it is one person using a singular feature (for example, “the woman in boots”) to point someone out in a crowd.

Sex would be the most notable difference in writing for adults, but Jones explains that many kids’ books deal with sex—not always explicitly, but it’s there. Jones alludes to sex a number of times in A Sudden Wild Magic: the book jacket even refers to an attack team of women using “kamikaze sex” to destroy another world’s magical hold on Earth. But while these allusions abound, Jones never goes into graphic detail…and according to her editor, this meant the sex element was all too “nice” and not “tragic,” which is what adult readers of fantasy expect.

Say what?

I admit, I held off on reading Jones’ adult-geared books because I feared there would be some sort of alteration in her humor and/or style to make them, well, “literary.” But no. All the snort-inducing quips, complicated plot twists, and ever-unique worlds are there. Jones may have felt the assumptions of adult writing to be “claustrophobic,” but she didn’t let that hinder the creation of yet another incredibly fun story. In her own closing words: “For, when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.”

Click here to read “Two Kinds of Writing?” Seriously, stop what you’re doing and read this.

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