Review of the Undead

Alright, as promised I’m doing my first “fiction Friday” book review.  Since we were talking about zombies on our camping trip, and that led to me deciding to do book reviews on my blog, I thought it would be fitting if I started with a zombie book.  So, in honor of this theme, I chose “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” by Carrie Ryan.

First off, this book has a great title.  Really, it’s the best zombie title I’ve seen, about a thousand times better than “Dawn of the Dead,” etc. (although Shaun of the Dead is a pretty good title, too, now that I think about it.  But since that’s a movie, it hardly counts).  But the question is, does it live up to its title? To be honest, when I first read this book a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so sure.  I definitely had mixed feelings about it, but since then I’ve found myself thinking about it at random times, and it stuck with me enough that I went out and bought the sequel, “The Dead-Tossed Waves,” even though it was still in hardback and I don’t actually like hardcovers on principle.

The basic plot is this (no spoilers–you could get most of this from the back of the book): Mary lives in a small village in the middle of the forest.  On all sides of their village is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is…you guessed it.  Zombies.  Hence the hands and teeth.  Her village is ruled by a Sisterhood of nuns, who teach them that they are the last people alive.  Shortly into the book, however, their fence is breached, and Mary and her friends have to venture out into the world, trying to find life in the midst of all that death.  Mary’s eventual goal is the ocean, but along the way she’ll have to decide between the two men who love her, subsequently destroying her friendship with her former best friend (actually, it was already pretty rocky by this point), and mending her relationship with her estranged brother.  She’ll discover truths about the forest, and the sisterhood, and the zombies on the other side of the fence, but most importantly, she’ll discover truths about herself.  And yeah, that sounds vague and lame, but I’m trying really hard not to give any spoilers here, so take it or leave it.

And now for the fun stuff.  First off, I love how they never refer to the undead in this book as “zombies.”  Instead, they call them “the Unconsecrated,” which sounds religious and creepy and really helps to make this book unique from all the other zombie books out there.  The Unconsecrated themselves are done really well; these are slow moving, relentless creatures who spend all their time hovering at the fence, moaning.  When they see people, they moan louder, and their fingers are all bloody and broken from trying to get in.  Later in the book, a new kind of Unconsecrated is introduced–a fast one, speeding back and forth and throwing itself at the fence with a ferocity that terrifies all the villagers.  And with good reason…

The characters in this book are well-done as well.  The main character, Mary, feels very real to me.  I like her because she’s not perfect, but she’s interesting and curious and strong.  A born survivor, she decides what she wants and she goes for it, which could be taken as selfishness, and really, it is that, but it also makes her a very intriguing character.  And it’s clear that she’s a good person, she just sees things from her own perspective.  I actually thought she was similar in many ways to Katniss from “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (great book–I’ll be reviewing it later)–both of them are strong female protagonists who look out for themselves first, although Katniss was a little more sympathetic to me because she loved her sister more than herself, whereas Mary comes first for Mary.

The other main characters are Harry, the boy Mary is supposed to marry, and his brother, Travis, the boy Mary actually loves.  What I liked best about them was that Harry wasn’t a total jerk.  Usually in those movies where the main female is with the guy she doesn’t love, he actually turns out to be a jerk, making it that much easier for the girl to move on to her actual love.  Real life isn’t like that.  People are all mixed bags of good and bad, and the characters in Carrie Ryan’s book are no exception to that.  In addition to Harry and Travis, there are Cass, Mary’s best friend, and Jed, Mary’s older brother.  Both of these characters are interesting because they start off as pillars of strength for Mary to lean on, and then they end up turning on her.  In fact, all the relationships in this book are handled very well.  I kept thinking certain characters would end up with other characters, and looking for the familiar patterns repeated over and over again in books and movies, and I kept being surprised by how things actually turned out.  That doesn’t happen too often, and it’s refreshing when it does.

Ultimately, there were three things I didn’t like about this book.  First of all, I felt like some parts were kind of glossed over.  Not to sound like a pervert or anything, but the author never actually mentions if Mary is sleeping with one or other of the boys in this book.  It’s inferred by the situation, but the fact that she doesn’t spell it out kind of bothered me, because it left me a little confused about their relationship.  Second, I wanted to know more information about the Sisterhood.  Mary starts to find out some disturbing facts, but then she’s forced to leave, and the book ends without that being resolved.  True, there’s the sequel, but I still felt like I needed just a little bit more closure.  On the other hand, this lack of closure is closer to real life, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  And third, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending, but then again, it’s a zombie book.  There’s no way a zombie book can end too happily.  Think about it–once there’s one zombie in the world, that’s the beginning of the end, really.  Unless they’re like the zombies in “28 Days Later,” which can actually starve to death.  Hint: the Unconsecrated are not that convenient. So really just the first thing bothered me, and just a little bit.

So, all in all I would say that on first read, I liked this book.  On a star scale, I would have given it a solid 3 of 5.  Then I sat on it for a while, and now, I’d actually give it at least 4 stars, probably 4.5.  And if you want to know the truth, the reason this book stuck with me is one line.  Just one line in the book that resounded with me so strongly I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Mary says, “He was everything.  Why couldn’t I see that he was everything?” And with this one bit of dialogue, I could feel all the regret and anguish that looking back always brings when you realize you’ve made the wrong choice and you can’t fix it.  Even now, my heart aches for her, and she’s just a bit of words on a page.  So that’s my conclusion–this book is a good idea with great details and characters that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.  Read it.

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More Fun With Protagonists

The flawed protagonist

So the other day I went all Joseph Campbell on the idea of the protagonist, and all characters in a story, as a part of the inner workings of the author of said story.  And while I still believe that, I realized I kinda went off the topic I originally wanted to discuss, which is how to create a realistic, fully fleshed main character.  So I’m just going to pick it up where I left off here…

As I mentioned, my trick is to use parts of my own personality for the base, but if I did that for all my main characters and didn’t do anything else, they would be super lame.  Let’s face it, I’m not that exciting of a person.  So, I take pieces and tinker with them a little, and then add traits until I have a character I can understand, but who is no longer really like me. Some of the traits I add or embellish intentionally–for instance, I gave the main character in my current WIP a short temper because in my own life, I generally try to avoid confrontation, but in a story, the more confrontation you have, the more drama you can put into a situation.  My character doesn’t like to back down, and will actually say all the snarky things that I normally just think at people, which makes her a very fun character to write about, and creates all sorts of interesting situations that carry the story along.

There are a lot of traits that will slip into a character’s personality unintentionally as well.  I know when I write, sometimes something just seems like it would be funny, or interesting, so I add it.  Again, for my WIP (which is sadly all I think about lately), my main character is a little bit immature, and a little bit of a cry baby, which she tries to cover up by being a tomboy.  I didn’t start off trying to create someone like that, but it just felt right with the story, and I think you should always trust your first instinct when creating a character.  I know someone whose main character has a strange fascination with teeth–she didn’t originally intend for this bizarre little trait in her first draft, but it just sort of developed and she went with it.  Which leads me to my next point.

People are weird.  Everyone you know is weird–trust me on this.  Everyone has their own strange little habits, or beliefs, or mannerisms, so it’s important that your characters, and particularly your protagonist, have their own crazy little tics and OCD moments.  These are the little details that will make your character feel like a real person to your readers.  And not just a real person, but someone they can relate to and cheer on.

In addition to the occasional strange habit, your characters have to have some sort of flaw.  And I’m not talking about freckles, or a terrible tennis serve, or anything silly like that–I mean a real, jarring, unpleasant flaw.  Like, they secretly hate their best friend, or they have an addiction to pain killers, or they can be extremely selfish.  The list is endless.  The worst thing you can do is create a character who is too perfect–every time I read about someone like that, I just want the villain to win because the idea of a perfect person winning is just too depressing.  And maybe that’s my cynicism talking, but generally I think a character with some sort of flaw who is able to overcome said flaw and triumph and grow at the end of the book is a character I can believe in.  These are the characters who will live in the reader’s mind outside of the pages of the story.

That’s about it.  If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  I think a lot of writing is intuitive, so it’s hard to really make a set of rules, but I’m sure people have their own tricks that help them set the foundation for their characters before inspiration kicks in and enables them to flesh these characters out.

Published in: on May 9, 2010 at 11:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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The protagonists within us (or why that stupid character is actually you)

Hmm, not really a protagonist, is he? Oh, and these are not the hammer...

Yesterday I talked about the difficulties in creating a truly evil villain, so today I thought I’d look at the other side of the coin: the protagonist.  A good, strong villain is important, but I know, as a reader, I won’t make it to the villain if I don’t like the hero of the story.  It’s the writer’s job to create a realistic, unique, and somewhat likable protagonist to guide the story along.  The writer has to know and understand their protagonist frontwards and backwards and inside out, which, from a writing standpoint, can be surprisingly hard to do.  I thought I’d share one trick here for how I go about creating a realistic main character in my own work, but I’d be very interested in hearing how other people go about doing this as well.

When beginning a story, I usually take my own personality as the starting base for my main character.  I think about what I like or don’t like about myself, and then I try to exaggerate the characteristics that I think would create an interesting character.  This way, I’m beginning with a real person I know fairly well, myself, and building on that, rather than creating a whole person out of thin air.  This plan can backfire, though, as first of all it is depressing to do that much soul-searching every time you write a story, and secondly, it can open you up to some harsh comments about yourself.  For example, I wrote a short story in college about a girl who is slowly starving because she’s too lazy to hold down a regular job (sound familiar?), so she answers an ad to do some psychological tests for money.  Madness ensues, and the rest isn’t too important, but during the critique of this story, my professor said, “Heidi is obviously having some fun with a stupid character,” and everyone else in the class laughed and agreed.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, feeling like crap because the main character was based loosely on myself.  True, I exaggerated her, but still!

Anyways, harsh personal criticisms aside I’d argue that every character in a book, from the protagonist to the villain, to the annoying sidekick and random passing characters, are all taken from parts of the writer’s own personality.  It might not be deliberate, as mine is, but these characteristics have to come from somewhere.  And I know that sounds like I’m parroting Joseph Campbell, but if you think about it, while you (the writer) are creating and fleshing out these little figures in ink and paper, you’re using your own experiences, memories, and emotions to judge how they would react, or what they desire.  It’s really bits of you that are motivating the whole book, and that to me is what is so amazing about writing in the first place; you’ll finish a story and realize you had all this inside you the whole time, and it’s amazing and also kind of terrifying.

Published in: on May 7, 2010 at 7:39 pm  Comments (5)  
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