Saturday, May 16

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This YA Fantasy Character and World Relatable?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 13.

This week’s questions:

1. Is the MC relatable?

2. Does the voice work? There's not a lot of room for humor here, and I'm worried it might sound a little too serious.

3. Is the worldbuilding too heavy?

4. Does this opening create mystery/intrigue?


Market/Genre: YA fantasy

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

The last time Ylen was in the capital, it was for half a hundred executions.

Ghost-shadows soft as wingtips trail after them as their limousine chugs down the main roads, past snow-capped statues and frost-rimed lampposts. Ylen turns her gaze downwards and ignores them, ignores their whispers on the nape of her neck, ignores the clench of her heart at the misting windows. She’s survived fifteen years of humiliation from the living. She can bear the baleful gaze of the dead—as all Delennians do.

Every Delennian senses ghosts differently. The music of lute-strings, the tremble of spilled ink, a glimmer in the embers. The grave whispers to Ylen in shades of wind. A life as a Delennian is a life with death—another misfortune the Qihrin in their mansions are blind to.

“Ylen, look! The city square!” Her brother, Henri, squirms beside her, his long black hair tumbling down for the eighth time today.

“I’m looking,” Ylen says, tucking his hair back into the loose mane behind his ears. Six is too young to tie back his hair, to study war and poetry, to brave the capital. But her family’s hopes and legacy rests on her brother, just a boy. The only boy left in the wake of the Restoration.

“No you’re not. Can we turn back, just for a while?”

“Maybe later, darling.” Ylen exchanges a glance with Eamon, their uncle by marriage and guardian. The city square is where Talisa was executed. Ylen and Henri’s graves in another lifetime, without the protection of Eamon’s Qihrin blood.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[The last time Ylen was in the capital, it was for half a hundred executions.] This is a strong line, so I expected something more to follow it to show why this matters right now.

Ghost-shadows soft as wingtips trail after them as their limousine chugs down the main roads, past snow-capped statues and frost-rimed lampposts. Ylen turns her gaze downwards and [ignores them, ignores their whispers on the nape of her neck, ignores the clench of her heart at the misting windows.] it wasn’t until here that I realized ghost-shadows were actual ghosts, not just a way to describe the shadows She’s survived fifteen years of humiliation from the living. She can bear the baleful gaze of the dead—[as all Delennians do.] since you mention this idea in the next paragraph, perhaps cut it here. It feels a little tacked on here and flows smoother in the next paragraph

[Every Delennian senses ghosts differently.] this feels a little tellish The music of lute-strings, the tremble of spilled ink, a glimmer in the embers. [The grave whispers to Ylen in shades of wind.] This is pretty, but I don’t know what it means [A life as a Delennian is a life with death—another misfortune the Qihrin in their mansions are blind to.] You might consider a little context to what these words mean. I gather Delennians are a group but I don’t know if they’re a race or if this is a title for people who see ghosts. Same with Qirhrin. Could be a race, could mean “nobles.”

“Ylen, look! The city square!” Her brother, Henri, squirms beside her, his long black hair tumbling down [for the eighth time today.] this number makes this feel significant, but I don’t know why

“I’m looking,” Ylen says, tucking his hair back into the loose mane behind his ears. Six is too young to tie back his hair, to study war and poetry, to brave the capital. But her family’s hopes and legacy rests on her brother, just a boy. [The only boy left in the wake of the Restoration. ] Does this mean all the boys are dead? Again, this all feels significant but I don’t know why and I’m starting to feel left behind

“No you’re not. Can we turn back, just for a while?”

“Maybe later, darling.” Ylen exchanges a glance with Eamon, their uncle by marriage and guardian. The city square is where [Talisa] his wife? Not clear who was executed. [Ylen and Henri’s graves in another lifetime, without the protection of Eamon’s Qihrin blood.] I don’t know what this means. Her uncle is Qihrin? They’d be dead if he wasn’t? It’s not clear

The questions:

1. Is the MC relatable?


I don’t know her well enough to say yet. I like that she exhibits some motherly touches with her brother, but there’s very little from her personally to know much about her. I gather she sees ghosts, has a terrible history, is orphaned, and is doing something she’d rather not do to save her family.

You might consider a little internalization from her to show how she feels about all the world building details. For example, it starts with mention of 50 executions, but there’s nothing to tell me why that matters to her or why it should matter to me as a reader. It’s a blank fact, so it washes right over me.

(Here’s more on crafting natural-sounding internalization)

2. Does the voice work? There's not a lot of room for humor here, and I'm worried it might sound a little too serious.

It’s a serious scene, and things so feel very dark and dire. Any time you start off with executions you’re going to set a dark expectation -grin-. Add to that the ghosts, the dead family, the humiliation, and it creates a strong sense of dread. That’s good from a tension standpoint, and I do feel like something terrible is going to happen concerning Henri. The serious works for me, and I have no problem with it being dark. If you wanted to lighten it up, Henri seems to be the right vehicle for that. A young boy can say or do things to bring in some levity.

The voice sounds like a fantasy novel voice, which is both good and bad. The fantasy tone is there, but there's nothing unique about it, because it’s just description of the world and situation. This is another aspect where some internalization from Ylen would help. I’m not yet feeling in her head, but outside looking in. This is due to the POV style. Third person present tense always makes me feel like I’m watching from the sidelines. (Readers chime in here)

(Here’s more on voice)

3. Is the world building too heavy?

It’s feels about right on details, but I think it’s missing the necessary context to make readers understand what those details mean. I get the general gist of things, but I’m struggling to figure it out. For example, I didn’t realize ghost-shadows were actual ghosts until later, so I had to readjust my thinking. I’m unsure exactly what the names means—by the end I assume Qihrin and Delennians are races/nationalities since you mention the uncle had Qihrin blood, but I wasn’t sure at first. It says Henri is the last boy, which makes me wonder if that’s literal and there are no more male children. But does that mean for just her people or all people?

I’d suggest killing two birds with one stone and using Ylen’s internalization to both flesh out her character, and help ground readers in her world. She can provide the necessary context by showing what these details mean to her. For example, right now she refers to Talisa by name and nothing else. I can guess that’s her aunt, but it’s not clear and there’s nothing to support it. But if she said “where Aunt Talisa was executed” then there’s instant context and something personal from Ylen. It’s not a faceless narrator saying “this girl’s aunt was killed” but the character remembering something terrible about her life. It’s a subtle difference, but it puts the world into the head of the protagonist.

(Here’s more on POV and description)

4. Does this opening create mystery/intrigue?

Yes. There are several elements that intrigued me. (readers chine in as well) The limo was a surprise, as I was expecting more traditional fantasy, and this must be a more advanced fantasy world. I can see Ylen has to do something that involves Henri she doesn’t want to do. She mentions tying his hair back equals war in some way, so maybe he’s off to be a solider for their enemies. I’m not sure, but I’m curious. She sees ghosts, which is interesting, and I’m wondering how this works and how it’s connected to her being humiliated her whole life (I assume she’s 15).

(Here's more on how to hook a reader)

Overall, I’m intrigued, and I’d probably read on to see where this goes. It’s a little dense and could benefit from some context, but it feels like the right pieces are there. Fantasy readers are more accepting of taking a little longer to set the scene since they know there’s a lot of world to build, so you have some time to let the scene unfold. As long as the conflict and tension is there, they’ll wait to see how it all connects.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

2 comments:

  1. When the ghosts were mentioned I wasn't sure if the half a hundred executions Ylen saw all happened that day, or if she was seeing ghosts of past executions. I would put a comma between `uncle by marriage' and `guardian'. Does Henri see ghosts too? Or does that start to happen only after one is a certain age?

    I like what I've read of this story. It's lovely and atmospheric. The limo makes me feel like I've gone into a sideways-from-the-regular-world dream-scape.

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  2. Ylen and Henri’s graves in another lifetime, --- this felt awkward and confusing. Graves from another lifetime? They seem to be living beings so why do they have graves?

    I like what I've read but I don't feel for Ylen just yet. I agree that internal thought would bring us closer to her and to understand more about this world and the circumstances. Also I agree with what Janice Hardy said.

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